Thursday, August 31, 2006

It was the wantonness that stirred me

When I was pregnant with my son I developed preeclampsia. The doctors determined that they'd have to take him out two months early if either of us were to make it.

He spent his first month in a neonatal intensive care unit across town before being transferred to the hospital closest to us until he'd gained enough weight to leave hospitals altogether. A NICU is, of course, a miraculous place of care and compassion, but it is also a place where much pain is experienced.

S. fought against a respirator that insisted on forcing breath in and out at a rate to which his body didn't want to conform; with his face contorting in silent screams, he was continually pricked and poked for blood samples, then transfused with fresh blood when he couldn't make enough to keep up with the amount taken (the scars on his wrists and ankles from the blood-taking did not fade away for more than a decade afterwards). Repeat.

Wired, tubed, and for several days blindered, he suffered. The painful procedures continued until eventually we--doctors, nurses, parents-- could tell that he was not only going to survive, but thrive.

Not all the babies did. There were those of two or three years of age, still in no shape to live outside NICU, abandoned by their parents, depending upon volunteers and scraps of time from the nursing staff for a bit of human contact. And there were several who lasted mere hours or days before they died.

A nurse caught me finger-stroking S.'s tiny arm on one of my first trips to the NICU. Did I not realize how much pain I was causing him? she snapped. Because he had no fat stores, the lightest touch was an assault to the nerve endings just underneath his skin. She taught me to cup my hand around him and to keep it still.

A couple weeks later I saw a new mother stroking her baby the way that I had. I waited for a nurse to correct her, but no one said a word. I knew then that her baby was going to die. No one was going to deny her the bit of comfort she could gain from touching him, even if her touch caused him distress, because these moments with the baby were going to be all that she had.

As you've maybe gathered by such an introduction, I responded to The Island of Doctor Moreau on a very personal level. If a person, if an animal, is to suffer by someone's hands in a House of Pain, it had better be for a damned good reason.

Moreau, well regarded in scientific circles in London prior to the publication of a pamphlet that exposed his cruel methods of vivisection, left England for a private island in the Pacific where he could continue his experiments outside the strictures of society. By cutting and mutilating and grafting he molds an assortment of animals into a tribe of Beast People, teaching them rudimentary language and a form of religious law designed to keep them under his control even after he has turned them out for retaining undesired animal characteristics. Imperfection really bums the man out.

Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.

Moreau isn't driven to mold animals into human shapes out a desire to help either man or creature, but merely because he wants "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape." Ethics are not of interest to him: "The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature," he claims. Pain is immaterial; it is animalistic; intellectual desire transforms others into problems to be solved, nothing more or less.

Doctor Moreau is, in short, as psychopathic as they come despite the god-like appearance and demeanor that Wells has given him.

Edward Prendick, our narrator, is no match for him. Because Prendick, a shipwrecked gentleman taking shelter on Moreau's private island, has dabbled in natural history and studied biology under the famed T.H. Huxley, Moreau eventually reveals the truth about his experiments to someone he assumes can appreciate them and will henceforth stop hindering his work due to silly behavior. Instead Prendick is horrified, but offers weak and minimal objection. He reminds me of a journalist who lands an exclusive interview and then is afraid to ask any follow-up questions to the canned nonsense he's given. Time and again I wished the narrator were someone like Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin, someone who both understood the science and was willing to argue the ethics of a situation, to insist that being human means behaving humanely toward those not on your level. Someone who could at least read the Greek and Latin classics shelved near his hammock instead of revealing yet another skill he's lacking.

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the hands. But now that seemed to be the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathized at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves, the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another, the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In these days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear of Moreau. I fell indeed into the morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

I'd like to read more H.G. Wells and I intend to return to this one again as well, possibly in a few weeks with S. My response to it next time may not be quite as visceral. Perhaps I'll see Prendick in a more appreciative light; he does makes an excellent narrator even though his passive nature infuriated me on my first reading.

(Cross posted with pages turned)

Next Book Possibilities...

Although we are in the middle of discussing The Island of Dr. Moreau still, Stefanie has tagged me to choose the next book, and I thought I would throw out a few reading suggestions for next time around for everyone to think about. Since we seem to have read mostly male authors, I thought I would suggest a few female authors. I took a peek through 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide and found many wonderful books, however many are out of print or hard to find. I highly recommend this book if you don't mind searching for some of the lesser known titles. I added a couple of authors that are more contemporary to my list, which I found in the book, as well as older classics. In no particular order:

I had thought about adding Marguerite Duras to the list, but most of her fiction appears to be out of print here (except The Lover, which is a very slender book and would be quick to read--I had thought of The Vice Counsel with The Lover being extra credit, but oh well).

Originally I was just going to choose international women authors, but was I not looking in the right place? I can't seem the find many foreign classics by women (not contemporary authors)--is not that much translated. There seem to be plenty of male authors out there in translation. Any thoughts?

Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda

I was talking to my father the other day about invention. From the beginning of history, people conducted their lives in similar ways. For thousands of years, news traveled the same way, wars were fought the same way, food was cooked the same way. Then in the mid-1800s, the world changed. People went to sleep one dreamfilled night in what could have been 1625 and awoke to a world that they didn't recognize. Trains, the telegraph and later indoor electricity. The Victorians were on the doorstep of the modern world. They were the first through the door. And the advent of modern science was the umbrella that covered their contemporary lives.

Yes, Darwin changed the way people thought of humans and therefore thought of themselves. His studies allowed for people to begin experiencing life like never before. Dimensions to worlds unknown opened up. Seances and spiritualism became common. Victorians were expanding their spiritual and religious realm. If what they thought about themselves had been altered by science, then maybe what they thought or knew of the dead and the soul, was different as well.

But it was writers like H.G. Wells, that uncovered hidden truths in them all. Writers like Wells made readers and the public rethink what it was to be human. Not just how they thought, but how the felt. The emotional turmoil pervading society had to be a sort of shell shock. If humans came from apes, then what does that do to our sense of who we think we are? Do we feel like humans? What does that even mean? Or could we be nothing more than wild creatures that wear clothing? What truly distinguishes us from 'them.'

Reading The Island of Dr. Moreau, these were the questions I was dealing with, repeatedly returning to. Rationalization is not the only thing that seperates us. Neither is knowledge or conscience. It must be all.

The narrator of Moreau, Prendick writes, Yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-Swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had there before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form.

These animal-human hybrids are humans in Prendick's estimation. Their ability to reason has changed them and has made them all too human like. However, I wonder if it was their strange mutation into human like beings that gave them reason or if they had always had reason and were now only able to communicate it. I fall into believing the latter in this case. Moreau had partly succeeded in his dungeon of science.

Prendick's experience on the lost island of mutation and vivisection, changed his way of feeling. It certainly changed the way he thought and what he thought about. Everything he thought he knew before, was turned upside down. He was left grasping.

I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island.

A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels. But this condition did not come all at once...I think indeed that I anticipate a little in speaking of it now.

This sentiment still reverberates today. I hear it echoed in Ginsberg's infamous first lines of Howl: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. There's something primitive in Ginsberg's feeling of desolation and I sense the same in Prendick's lament.

As a society, we cope with watershed changes in a myriad of ways, but we have to deal with them nonetheless. But what does it mean to feel this way? Can we always change things for the better? Should we leave life, science, nature, better left untouched? I don't know.

I leave Dr. Moreau with more questions than answers...but I prefer literature that way. It is the discoveries I make on my own that validate my experiences.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Writing of H.G. Wells

In an introduction to one of our many volumes of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov finds the earliest examples of science fiction in Johann Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mary Godwin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne, who popularized the genre. The biggest difference for Wells seems that he wrote at a time when the studies of science and technology were increasing, expanding, and gaining more interest and acceptance than in the past. He took many subjects that were hot topics in England and explored them, turning what was then known as scientific romances into what has become the science fiction of today. Though Verne was harshly critical of Wells' work, Wells was the more imaginative, and has proven to be the more prophetic, writer.

For extra credit, in addition to the selected title, we also read The War of the Worlds (the translucent review concerning which has previously been posted) and The Time Machine. This second novel began its existence as early as 1888, and reportedly evolved from three distinct ideas into the final form, in 1895, we know today. The distinctive elements we recognise right away are the theory of time travel, the experiences of a Time Traveler, and a future vision.

Wells begins by laying out the theory of travel through time plainly and believably by comparison to travel through space. The experiences of the Time Traveler follow, recounted to a group of friends, though as an uninterrupted narrative for the reader. The vision comes at the end, when the Time Traveler goes back to the future, and beyond, millions of years hence. Instead of the great technology-driven worlds of microchips and interstellar life, Wells discloses a shrouded desolate landscape inhabited by monstrous crustaceans that, we are led to believe, has come about by some withering of man, first into placid leisure, and then into extinction. Having progressed to conquer all challenges and losing the ability to adapt, mankind doomed itself to atrophy.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau, first published in 1896, when Wells was thirty years old, we find the contemporaneous controversy of vivisection mixed with the future controversy of gene splicing; questions in morality of experimentation on animals; the hazards of sea travel; the evils of empire; evolution and creationism; and we also find the more broader issues of religion and existence. There also is the theme of transformation similar to another of his novels, The Invisible Man. The common thread in all Wells' writing seems to be a sort of debunked utopian outlook. Is the striving to reach beyond ourselves worth the trouble?
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. ... Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what?
Prendick, the man whose discovered narrative makes up the tale, is considering the creatures that have been born of Moreau's experimentation; yet he may also be addressing Moreau's condition: as a man, Moreau was perfectly adapted to his station in life, but in trying to understand something he could not--creation--he now faced constant fear, of his own handiwork.

The novel has much of the flavor of a writer at odds with religion. Dr. Moreau is referred to by his creatures as Him. We also watched the film version of the novel, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, in which the point is taken even further, as the creatures call Moreau Father. Prendick even thinks Moreau has hypnotised the creatures into believing he is their god. For humans today who do not understand, are they not the beasts to God's Moreau? Is God nothing but a mad scientist? The screenplay makes a few adaptations to the novel, most notably the addition of a love interest for Prendick (who is also renamed), a young woman he tries to save from reverting to beasthood, a subplot which adds nothing of substance to Wells' story. In the film, Moreau uses electical implants to control his creatures, while in the book they are heeled only by the whip and the Law--a set of rules unnatural to their beastly instincts, as precarious is the Bible and other religious tracts in restraining
men from their most natural instincts of survival: fear, flight, and fight.

At the end of the novel appears a lifeboat of the ship from which Prendick had been cast off. Inside he finds dead the captain and another man from the ship. The irony is, if Prendick had not been cast off the ship and suffered the horrors of Moreau's island, he would have died. Perhaps there is a message there, that only by facing up to the darkness of men can we hope to survive. Though Prendick has seen the worst, he also nows sees hope. Wells realised much that was horrible in human nature, yet the world's worst conflicts were still far in the future. In this and other stories, he reveals the darker shades of humanity, with hope just a glimmer of possibility. That hope is fragile, as if he wishes a better fate, but has little faith in civilization. The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine are works of doomsday fiction.

Though not transcendent works, these novels are interesting and thought-provoking, and in many ways remarkable when considering the time during which they were written. For a reader of broad interests ploughing through two thousand pages of A la recherche du temps perdu, some other of Wells' novels, like The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and The Food of the Gods might be quick intermissions between Swann in Love and Within a Budding Grove. We will keep those books at hand confident of a good story for when the need arises.

Not a Vacation Spot

Cross posted at A Work in Progress

For all my talk of the romance of seaside villages and deserted islands, there is one place I would not like to visit--Noble's Island. H.G. Wells created a horrific place when he wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau (as a small side note, Penguin is reissuing many of Wells's works in lovely new editions with very helpful and detailed introductions).

The story of what happened to Edward Prendick when the ship he was in collided with another and sank, and the events that followed are written down in narrative form for us to read. And a dire story it is from beginning to end. How much shall I tell you? Was Edward lucky when after many days in a boat, starving, he was picked up by the Lady Vain? And what cargo was she carrying? Poor unfortunate creatures. Edward is saved by Montgomery and nursed back to health. When the ship drops Montgomery and his animals off, Edward is forced to go with them, much to his chagrin.

He isn't going to like what he finds there. And as in every story or movie where you know there are nasty things happening, what does our trusty narrator do? For sure he goes off to investigate. Actually what initially sets him off are the cries of utter pain from an animal behind closed doors. Edward cannot take it any longer, and who can blame him. However he is in for more of an education than he bargained for when he sets off across the island in search of peace and quiet. There are the most unusual people inhabiting it. Who are they and how did they come to be the way they are? What he doesn't know is that they are not humans who have been tampered with. They were once animals that have been reconstructed in man's image.
Vivisection. It is one of those words that I have heard and imagined that I knew what it meant.

viv-i-sec-tion (viv-uh-sek-shuh n) - noun.
1. the action of cutting into or dissecting a living body.

2. the practice of subjecting living animals
to cutting operations, esp. in order to advance physiological and
pathological knowledge.

I was actually enjoying this book, frightening though it may be, up until when Dr. Moreau explained and tried to justify his actions.

“But,” said I (Edward), “I still do not understand. Where is your justification
for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me
would be some application—”

“Precisely,” said he. “But, you see, I am differently constituted. We are on different platforms. You are a materialist.”

“I am not a materialist,” I began hotly.

“In my view—in my view. For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as
pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an
animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain—” I gave an impatient shrug at such sophistry.

“Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards—Why, even on this earth, even among living things, what pain is there?”
As he spoke he drew a little penknife from his pocket, opened the smaller blade, and moved his chair so that I could see his thigh. Then, choosing the place deliberately, he drove the blade into his leg and withdrew it.

“No doubt,” he said, “you have seen that before. It does not hurt a pin-prick. But
what does it show? The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and it is not placed there,—is but little needed in the skin, and only here and there over the thigh is a spot capable of feeling pain. Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us. Not all living flesh is painful; nor is all nerve, not even all sensory nerve. There's no taint of pain, real pain, in the sensations of the optic nerve. If you wound the optic nerve, you merely see flashes of light,—just as disease of the auditory nerve merely means a humming in our ears. Plants do not feel pain, nor the lower animals; it's possible that such animals as the starfish and crayfish do not feel pain at all. Then with men, the more intelligent they become, the more intelligently they will see after their own welfare, and the less they will need the goad to keep
them out of danger. I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later. Did you? And pain gets needless.

“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be, I fancy, that I have seen more of the ways of this world's Maker than you,—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—bah! What is your theologian's ecstasy but Mahomet's houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them,—the mark of the beast from which they came!Pain, pain and pleasure, they are for us only so long as we wriggle in the dust."

And then it made me a tad bit sick. You should be careful what you do in life, sometimes it comes back at you and (well, to be blunt) bites you in the ass. I won't tell you about the demise of Dr. Moreau, or what happens when everyone is dead save Edward and the Beast Folk. You'll need to read the book yourself to find out and fill in the details. And I do recommend this book. While it wasn't always pleasant reading, it was a very good and a very sort of--edge of your seat story.

For a slim, little volume, and a very quick read, this book is packed with ideas. But then Wells, himself was packed with ideas. I would love to read more about him. Last year I read his The Time Machine, which was just as bleak, and now I will have to follow up with War of the Worlds (they were written in this order). This is a book that screams for discussion, which you can follow here (once the forum is set up), and you can read all the Slaves's posts here.


Cross-posted at So Many Books

What a horrible book! That's horrible as in causing horror, not as in the glib way we use it to mean something is bad. The Island of Dr. Moreau made my stomach turn at times. The cries of the puma being vivisected, "such and exquisite expression of suffering," almost made me stop reading, so clearly could I hear them in my head. Prendick's reaction, to escape the cries rather than to do something to stop the animal's suffering, made me so angry I wanted to do something to hurt him, after, that is, I stormed Moreau's fortress, set all of the suffering animals free, and hung Moreau by his toes from the highest tree. What a horrible, excruciating, gut-wrenching book!

The book has a sort of Heart of Darkness feel to it for me. But instead of Kurtz being worshipped by the natives, Moreau makes his own to worship him. Moreau is God on his little island, molding animals into the semblance of humans, giving them The Law, and meting out punishment to those who break The Law. Moreau's level-headed explanation to Prendick of what he is doing is seductive in its cool, scientific reasoning. That Moreau thinks he can, by "dip[ping] a living creature into the bath of pain [...] burn out all the animal" and be left with a rational creature reveals his madness. What is even more frightening is that Moreau has no purpose for his work other than personal. His intentions are not to improve the lives of animals or humans. He wants, but I am not entirely sure what he wants, maybe only to marvel in his own power. He is the scientist we all fear, the one who lives in a self-created, self-driven universe where ethics and morals do not have a role. He is the doctor we are afraid will experiment on us just to see what happens; the scientist who would clone a human being or create a toxin without an antidote. This being a book, we have the satisfaction of Moreau getting what he deserves. The book plays on our fears of science in such a way, however, that I am left with a creepy feeling that there are real-life Moreaus who are, at this moment, far away from justice.

Wells's writing style is reporterly and unadorned. Here are the facts and just the facts. We are not told how we are to think or feel about what is going on. It is like the reader is a jury and the text presents the various sides of the case for our consideration. Everyone gets a turn to speak, Moreau, his assistant Montgomery, Prendick the narrator, even the "beast people." We do not get to decide their fates, they take care of that themselves. We only get to decide their guilt.

The book also asks us to think about what is human. When the book was written, Darwin's theory of evolution was turning society upside down. No longer could we be so certain that we were created by God. Nor could we say for sure that we were not animals. Even in the twenty-first century the repercussions of Darwin continue to play out. What is animal? What is human? When once we were certain we were the top of the pyramid, with evolution we are only one more step in the development of the species and we don't know what is in the future. So what do we do? Do we abdicate, and become animals? Or do we become Moreau-like and attempt to turn ourselves into gods? Wells does not try to suggest an alternative to either and I am glad he didn't, it would have given the novel a false note and tempered the horror. Instead we are forced to look in the mirror and try and answer some tough questions.

Everyone is welcome to joine the Slaves of Golconda discussion of this book at MetaxuCafe

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?

I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:

They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.

At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:

For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.

Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.

Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:

Least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch – somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.

He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact --, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.

This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.

Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Are we not Men?

Crossposted at Bookworm

I wonder what Darwin would have thought of The Island of Dr. Moreau? That giant of science who showed, among other things, that humans share a common ancestry with "lower animals," might have been interested in a novel about the boundaries between ourselves and our animal cousins. As a nature-lover myself, the idea of being akin to all the wonderful animals on this planet is far from disturbing. I see no malice in predators, as Prendick the unfortunate castaway does, and no shame in an animal's fear of pain, as Moreau the pitiless vivisector does. But reading this book makes me think that a generation after The Descent of Man, English society was still deeply troubled by the thought that they might be of the same substance as creatures they had thought of as soulless, inferior, and created solely for our own use and benefit.

The book gives us three different perspectives on animals. Dr. Moreau, the real monster of the story, clearly possesses a deep hatred for animal qualities, so much so that he is willing to endure exile to continue his horrific experiments.

Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.

Montgomery, Moreau's right hand man, represents the other extreme. He does not try to control his urges, he befriends and sympathizes with Moreau's creatures, and in the end destroys himself by instigating a sort of anti-human Bacchanalia. Prendick observes:

I felt that for Montgomery there was no help; that he was in truth half-akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred.

Prendick represents the middle road between having contempt for animals and becoming one. He shares some of Moreau's scientific curiosity and is not categorically against animal experimentation but, English gentleman that he is, he has his limits. Though he feels the animal in himself rise up in moments of crisis, he is still disgusted by the mixture of animal and human in Moreau's experiments. He does develop some sympathy for the plight of the Beast People, and ends up living with them for a while, but is never truly comfortable around them. He doesn't try to dominate them as Moreau did, but neither does he see them as fit companions for a man, as Montgomery did. When he finally escapes the island and returns to England, he is haunted by the irrational fear that the people around him are not entirely human, especially those of the lower classes. If anything, he clings to the distinction between human and animal even more strongly after his experiences on Dr. Moreau's island.

And what are those distinctions? Two aspects in particular, one mental and one physical, are prominent in the book. The mental distinction is, not surprisingly, rational thought. Though the Beast People do achieve a certain level of intelligence and culture, they eventually revert to their animal nature and instinct reclaims their minds. The physical hallmark of humanity in this book is the human hand. Moreau's only, and surprisingly willing, deference to the pain of his subject is with regards to hands:

…often there is trouble with the hands and claws—painful things that I dare not shape too freely.

Only the Ape Man naturally has five digits, a fact which he takes great pride in as proof of his humanity. Moreau is described as having long, dexterous fingers, with which he performs his surgeries, and which are part of the Beast People's religious litany:

His is the House of Pain
His is the Hand that makes
His is the Hand that wounds
His is the Hand that heals

When he is finally killed by one of his creatures, one of his hands is found nearly severed at the wrist. His companions hands are mentioned too. Montgomery is described as dexterously bandaging Prendicks's arm after it is broken by the escaping Puma Man. Later, Prendick gains respect among the Beast People with the weapons he wields in his hands—a hatchet and stones. They have a deeper bite and longer reach than their natural weapons, teeth and claws. Finally, after returning to England, Prendick takes solace in books, objects that are completely and unalterably human, the work of human hands.

I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men.

Though I don't share the book's views on animal nature, I greatly enjoyed the book itself. This was not my first acquaintance with the story—I saw the 1996 film adaptation recently—so I was not in suspense about the general outline of the story. [MOVIE SPOILER WARNING!!!] There was a significant thematic difference between the book and the movie version I saw. In the film, Moreau's goal is not "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape" but to improve the human race by splicing in strong, animal characteristics. This was done more by biochemical than surgical means, as befits today's technological environment. This shifted the story's concern away from the fear of the animal in us to the ethical aspects of genetic engineering. In the film, Moreau's abomination was not miscegenation but playing God. It actually left me with more to think about than the book did. [END OF SPOILERS]

I greatly enjoyed Wells' clear, precise, evocative, and impeccable English. I suspect many readers might find it a bit dull, but it is a natural fit for my scientific mind. Only on one occasion did I find a sentence that didn't just roll off the page. For those who haven't read the book, here is a sample of his style, describing the moment when Prendick fully appreciates what Moreau has done:

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspects of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau—and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.

I haven't read any other Wells so I don't know if he adopted this style because the narrator was an amateur scientist, or if that is always his way of writing, perhaps reflecting the fact that he himself had studied biology for a time. I shall find out as I intend to read more of his work. For now it's off to the Slaves of Golconda blog and the MetaxuCafé forum to see what other readers thought of this scary little gem.

By the way, did anyone read the 1996 Modern Library edition of the book? Isn't it lovely? This is for colophon fans (I know you're out there!):

The principal text of this Modern Library edition was set in a digitized version of Bembo, a typeface based on an old-style Roman face that was used for Cardinal Bembo's tract De Aetna in 1495. Bembo was cut by Francisco Griffo in the early sixteenth century. The Lanston Monotype Machine Company of Philadelphia brought the well-proportioned letter forms of Bembo to the United States in the 1930's.