Two Histories of Vivisection and an Essay on Hamlet

“This is the only field in which sadism can be practised within the law”: so wrote John Vyvyan, in bitter jest, as he reviewed the writings of Elie de Cyon and Claude Bernard, two leading champions of vivisection in the mid-nineteenth century. De Cyon, he believed, genuinely was a sadist; Claude Bernard he thought merely callous, a “subman … a mutilated being”. But subman as he may have been, Bernard commanded the new profession of medical research, and cClaude_Bernard_and_pupils_Wellcome_L0019301rucially he sited it in the animal laboratory. The practical and moral consequences of that choice constitute the story which Vyvyan told in his 1969 book In Pity and in Anger.

To Bernard’s own laboratory in Paris came all the ambitious young medical researchers, including the man who would later become Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Once settled back in Britain, Burdon Sanderson kept a bust of Claude Bernard upon his study mantelpiece. So, no doubt, did many others in the profession. Conan Doyle put one on the mantelpiece of his fictitious professor in the story ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ (first published in 1890). And along with Bernard’s authority came, as Vyvyan shows, “a new set of values”, licensing and indeed enforcing “the pitiless exploitation of the rest of nature for the physical benefit of man.” [19]

Of course there was some passionate objection to these new “values” [see the post about Frances Power Cobbe, 1 August 2017]. As the book’s title suggests, much of its story is about the personalities and politics of the anti-vivisection movement. Vyvyan was writing a polemic as well as a thoroughly researched history, and he had a great admiration and sympathy for these people. The frightfulness of contemporary animal research he conveys as much through their shock as by direct account. Anna Kingsford, who put herself through medical studies at the Paris Faculté de Médicine during the 1870s in order to speak for the animals with knowledge and authority, called the experience “descending into Hell” [108]. And these opponents did have this much success in Britain, the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, which in theory if not in fact took the values out of the hands of the scientists and gave them to the general public and their elected representatives to decide upon. For all the Act’s faults, and its failures in practice, Vyvyan himself thought well of it: “millions of animals and thousands of students have been spared by this Act, which owes its existence to the early activities of the anti-vivisection movement.”

That last quotation actually comes from the sequel which Vyvyan wrote to In Pity and in Anger, covering the twentieth century to date and titled The Dark Face of Science (1971). Claude Bernard was now in the past; he had died at about the time the British Act was passed. Even so, this next book has for an epigraph, casting its long shadow forward over all the succeeding pages, Bernard’s notorious brag: “le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est eminémment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

Involved in the darkness of that epigraph’s shadow can be found, of course, the medical trials at Nuremberg in 1946-7, when the world heard for the first time what had been done by way of vivisection in the concentration camps: “these incredible events”, the prosecutor Telford Taylor called them, but Vyvyan shows that so far from being incredible they had always been an implication of animal research, and had accordingly been predicted long before. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, had said in 1900, speaking of the possible usefulness of animal research, “you cannot bring a thing of this kind to a utilitarian test at all. If you once begin that particular line of argument, you will find yourself landed in horrors of which you can have no conception.” [29] But quite apart from the awful human dimension, Nuremberg showed how much the practice of vivisection had been boosted and liberated by the urgencies of war, as indeed it had been in both the world wars, on both sides.

So far from meriting special moral licence on account of its service to human well-being, then, vivisection had become part of the century’s psychopathology of violence – had indeed been a crucial preparative for it, so Vyvyan believed. He put Bernard’s words there at the front of his book to indicate as much. And there had, after all, been no shortage of disciples to carry Bernard’s ethic forward into the new century. Vyvyan quotes Edwin Slosson, the American chemistry professor and celebrated popularizer of science in the early twentieth century: “If cats and guinea pigs can be put to any higher use than to advance science, we do not know what it is.” More inclusively, “the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life”. [20]

John Vyvyan was an archaeologist by profession, but having retired from that work (through ill health, I think), he took to writing. He wrote three books about the plays of Shakespeare, on the face of it a strange subject to combine with vivisection, or the other way round. But there is a connection.

It was part of Vyvyan’s argument in his two vivisection histories that science could have nothing to say about ethics, except as to its own professional ethic of loyalty to the facts. In ethics and mental life generally science was, or ought to be, itself governed by “the whole human inheritance that the arts (by which he meant all creative making and thinking) have built up over thousands of years.” [Dark Face, 111] And in both the histories this “inheritance” is extensively used in evidence against vivisection, for as Vyvyan says, “virtually all the great creative artists, in whatever medium they worked, have condemned the cruelty of science.” [Pity and Anger, 25] True, there was Gill's Shakespeare.JPGnot much contemporary science for Shakespeare to comment on (though he does touch on vivisection in the play Cymbeline, as described in this blog at 6 December 2016). However, his poetry is a notable part of the “human inheritance”, and accordingly a proper reference for moral thought. And the line of moral thought which Vyvyan studies in his book The Shakespearean Ethic (1959) does indeed prevision the thesis of The Dark Face of Science, most plainly in its remarkable chapter on Hamlet. A digression on the Vyvyan Hamlet, then (skip the next five paragraphs if you’re not as interested in that as I am).

There have been countless interpretations of this supreme and puzzling play, but the lastingly orthodox one, the one on which most actual productions are based, sees the sensitive hero face the terrible duty of avenging his murdered father, then put it off in doubts and hesitations, then rouse himself to the task with self-destructive courage, and finally depart the stage to a funeral drum, as the royal hero he has proved himself to be. Vyvyan up-ends this story. For him, the enlightened student Hamlet is corruptly persuaded by his murdered father’s lurid appeal from the region of “sulphurous and tormenting flames” (punishment for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature”) to revert, against his own better nature and education, to a primitive, pre-Christian ethic, according to which he, not the human or divine laws, must judge and punish the usurper Claudius. In acting thus, he has to betray all that’s noblest in himself, and by the end he has impartially destroyed the best along with the worst in the Danish court.

We know that Claudius is not in fact free of punishment either now or in futurity. He is Hamlet by Delacroixtormented by remorse (“O heavy burden!”), and expecting to have to answer in time for his “rank” offence before a divine, if not a human, tribunal. He says so, kneeling hopelessly in prayer, where Hamlet comes upon him with sword drawn in that moment of astonishing theatrical effect. But Hamlet, unlike Claudius himself, believes that mercy may be available in heaven for the praying king; that’s the reason he gives to himself for leaving Claudius unkilled at this moment. So, in the role of avenger, he means to outwit divine authority.

That it is a role, rather than a course of action native to his character, is suggested not only in the imitatively lurid and unsophisticated language he uses to drive himself on (“now could I drink hot blood”, etc.) but also, most tellingly for Vyvyan, in the cruel repudiation of his love for Ophelia. It is Ophelia who most feelingly witnesses to Hamlet’s natural fineness of character and to his tragic transformation (“O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown …!”). In fact Vyvyan argues that the rejection and death of Ophelia are an allegory of Hamlet’s repudiation of love and beauty in his own nature, “the slow killing of the higher qualities of his soul” (56).

Looking outside himself for a model of right action, Hamlet lights upon Fortinbras, the absurd soldier whom he encounters tramping across the stage with his army on the way to waste “two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” in a dispute about a “straw”. Accordingly it’s Fortinbras who, in the last scene, speaks a militarist’s epitaph for Hamlet, and orders his men to take up the body of this student and philosopher “like a soldier”, though the deaths by accident, deceit, and poisoning that strew the stage have in fact been anything but soldierly. They carry Hamlet from this shambles, the visible cost of his rough justice, to the sound of a dead march and the firing of guns, symbols of conquest and domination. Vyvyan sums up this tragic conclusion as “the defeat of humanity and the perpetuation of genocide”. (60)

So Hamlet is, like the other Shakespearean tragic heroes Othello and Macbeth, a noble character corruptly induced to his own moral ruin, and Vyvyan ends his chapter with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, the hero-scholar’s cry of despair: “Das ist deine Welt! Das heist eine Welt!” [That is your world! That is called a world!]

Back to The Dark Face of Science. That Vyvyan was picturing something analogous to Hamlet’s story (as he interpreted it) when he came to write the later book is suggested at its start, for below the ominous words of Claude Bernard in the epigraph is another quotation from Faust:

Weh! Weh!
Du hast sie zerstört,
Die schöne Welt
Mit mächtiger Faust …

[Alas! Alas! You have destroyed the beautiful world with your mighty fist.]

What is the “beautiful world” that Bernard, like Faust, has destroyed? Partly it’s pre-Bernardian science, the delight of knowledge honourably pursued. For Vyvyan assures his readers in a preliminary ‘Note’, “I love science. I owe to it a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence.” And partly the “beautiful world” is the one which Charles Darwin had revealed and bequeathed to the twentieth century, whose implicit ethic of life-fellowship did indeed make possible “a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence”. For it’s with this prospect of life-fellowship, this “new fact, which makes it necessary to re-think our ethics” as Vyvyan calls it [20], that he opens his story of the twentieth century. It’s the equivalent of that “inclination … to light” [36] which he has imputed to the Hamlet of Act 1. And in both cases, as he says of the play, a “tremendous spiritual battle must ensue” to secure or to lose it [36].

That the vivisection contest has indeed been this tremendous battle rather than just a series of political rows is what the book keeps in the reader’s mind always. “This is something to set to the credit of mankind”, Vyvyan says of the great 1909 London Congress against vivisection [95]. But more pessimistically, and echoing at large the story he has told about Hamlet, “the disciples of Claude Bernard have been able to conquer the human mind. It has been a barbarous conquest. It has debased our humanity, made a mockery of our spiritual pretensions, and devalued life itself.” [46] Hamlet’s is a finished story, but ours is not; until we redeem it, supposing we have the time and will to do so, “the human race,” so John Vyvyan says near the end of his book, “has no right to happiness.”


Notes and references:

Both vivisection titles by John Vyvyan are still in print, published by Micah Publications Inc., Marblehead, MA, U.S.A. The Shakespearean Ethic has been re-published by Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2011. The quotations and page references above are from the 1988 Micah edition of In Pity and in Anger, but the 1971 edition of The Dark Face of Science, published by Michael Joseph, and the 1959 edition of The Shakespearean Ethic, published by Chato and Windus.

The painting of Bernard in his laboratory is by Leon-Augustin l’Hermitte. The image is part of the Wellcome Collection online, and has been made freely available. Bernard is the one standing at the ‘trough’, of course.

The wood-engraved portrait of Shakespeare is by Eric Gill in 1936.

The lithograph of Hamlet and the praying Claudius was made by Eugène Delacroix in 1843.







What Shakespeare Would Have Said

In a few days’ time, a wreath will be placed at the the monument to Samuel Johnson in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, to mark the anniversary of his death on 13 December 1783256px-samuel_johnson_by_joseph_nollekens_1777. It’s a little ceremony that occurs every year, acknowledging Dr Johnson’s continuing authoritative presence in English literary culture. The bust used for the monument was made by Joseph Nollekens when Johnson was sixty eight. It expresses very clearly his great moral and intellectual force.

Outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square, there’s another and more recent monument, this one imaging his cat Hodge. Johnson was very fond of Hodge. James Boswell recalls, in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), watching the cat “scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying “Why, yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then, as if Hodge.JPGperceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

Boswell writes the Life as a friend, but also as a self-consciously cosmopolitan Scot, and he calls Johnson “much of a John Bull; much of a true-born Englishman”. That Englishness has been a lasting element in Johnson’s reputation: he appears, for instance, as one of the images of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s satirical novel England, England (1998). And I suppose that the monument to Hodge might be thought to record another aspect of Englishness: the love of animals. But of course the idea that England, or for that matter Britain, is or ever has been a nation of animal-lovers (it’s a cliché much-loved by journalists and politicians) is humbug – useful, I suppose, as a myth tending to obscure our actual pitiless subjugation of most of them. Nor did Boswell himself (though he had an aversion to cats) relate this fondness to Johnson’s nationality. He recounts it as evidence, along with Johnson’s considerateness to children and to his household servants, of “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”. In this respect, therefore, he modifies his biographical portrait of an otherwise extraordinarily downright and dogmatic mind, a man pugnacious in argument with his peers and impatient of anything sentimental.

So Johnson’s care for Hodge, although it must certainly have involved pure affection, was of a piece with the rooted concern he felt for all who were especially liable to maltreatment, injustice, or disregard – whether animals or people. “Upon one occasion,” says Boswell, “when in the company of some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies!’” Neither on that occasion at Oxford (his own university, from which he had his honorary doctorate), nor when he spoke playfully to Boswell over Hodge’s head, were “humanity and gentleness” strictly required of him; it was in his nature to feel them and to express them gratuitously.

And that’s why also, in his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, he suddenly breaks off from making learned notes in order to voice his disgust at vivisection. He has reached Act I, scene v, line 23 of Cymbeline. The Queen, stepmother to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is just making plans to … but why retail this elaborate plot, which Johnson himself found tiresome? The point is that the Queen has commissioned a selection of “most poisonous compounds” from the physician Cornelius. He somewhat diffidently asks her what she wants them for. Basic research, is her reply:

                        I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging – but none human –
To try the vigour of them and apply
Allayments to their act, and by them gather
Their several virtues and effects.

To see what happens, in short, using (so Cornelius guesses) cats and dogs for the purpose. In this, the Queen speaks for a long line of future scientists. I wish that Cornelius could be said to be doing the same for his profession, when he tells her

         Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

“Shall … but ..”: he means that the only certain result of the Queen’s studies will be to diminish her humanity (‘shall’ being used in the common Shakespearean sense of ‘must’ or ‘will necessarily’, and ‘but’ in the sense ‘only’). So Cornelius, like Boswell, puts animals into the same moral space as humans, where indeed they belong: as we treat the one, so may we be expected to treat the other. The Queen impatiently dismisses his scruples: “O, content thee!” – in other words, ‘Dry up!’ And although such a research project would be characteristic of her (she’s of the wicked step-mother class), the Queen is not really engaged in it at all. Rather than knowledge, her mind is on her career, or her son’s career. (How far she’s in this way anticipating that long line of scientists again here, I can’t say.) Her intention is to clear his path to the throne with poison.

Samuel Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare are in general aimed at clarifying obscurities in the text, or suggesting emendations, but what Cornelius says moves him so much that he puts aside the textual critic and speaks as a moralist or simply as a man:

There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

It’s a case which he had argued more discursively in one of his weekly Idler essays (5 August, 1758), but now, in the little space proper to a textual note, he puts it with extraordinary conciseness and anger. So strongly does he believe these men to have compromised their humanity by what they do, that in his last few words he separates them from the class “human beings” altogether. It’s a strange and sinister image: the men standing upright, as amoral aliens, among gatherings of ordinarily decent people.

This, Johnson implies, is what “our author” himself would have felt, had he lived into the science-crazed eighteenth century. He brings the huge moral authority of Shakespeare as a testimonial to his case, as I do that of Samuel Johnson. Meanwhile, Cornelius spoils the Queen’s supposed researches by substituting harmless soporifics for the wished-for poisons. In this way he sets an early example of peaceable sabotage, and ensures that the story has a happy ending. All four of us can be content with that.



The quotations from Boswell’s Life of Johnson come from the years 1783 and 1777: in the Oxford University Press edition of 1953, they’re at pp.1217 and 876.

For Dr Johnson in England, England (Vintage Books 2012), see p.142: in the ghastly simulacrum of England which Sir Jack Pitman (a vainglorious businessman of the Donald Trump variety) creates on the Isle of Wight, Dr Johnson is seen introducing visitors to “the Dining Experience at the Cheshire Cheese”.

The bust by Nollekens as shown is from the Yale Center for British Art. The statue of Hodge was made by Jon Bickley, and placed in Gough Square in 1997.