As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
It was with the printing press and Enlightenment science that history first demarcated itself from literature as a field of knowledge founded on scientific principles and archival methods. In the twentieth century, however, the intermingling of the two was renewed in the archival mode pioneered, perhaps most famously, by Jorge Luis Borges. In the age of the Internet—that grandest of archives—this tendency has been reinvigorated by authors as diverse as W. G. Sebald, Tom McCarthy, and Rachel Kushner.
According to art historian and critic Hal Foster, the “archival impulse” in contemporary art represents a melacholic fascination with the unfulfilled political projects of modernity legible in our cultural and industrial detritus. A comparable sensibility informs Thalia Field’s Experimental Animals (A Reality Fiction) (Solid Objects, 2016). Drawing on close to twenty years of research on Claude Bernard—the French founder of modern experimental physiology—Field cuts nineteenth-century newspapers, journals, and letters into a meditation on vivisection and its ethical quandaries. Told from the viewpoint of Bernard’s wife, Fanny, Field’s polyphonic opus reaches into the textual remains of figures such as Charles Darwin, Émile Zola, and Anna Kingsford, an English antivivisectionist and early women’s rights activist.
BOMB invited Field to dive back into her sea of Bernard research. The result is the following outtake.
Can you really close a book, just like that?
Doesn’t it keep talking after the flames die down, do a little ash-dance in the breeze, unsettling unfinishable arguments…?
Between moons and charcoal, don’t the flint-eye dragons always rumble? Don’t cats stab through broken tombtops? Don’t the tall weeds hide the smallest worm paths after a rain…?
Fanny, don’t you see the dogs by the gates?
Of course. Strays all come here, eventually. Spiderwebs tangle, clammy with vertiginous gnats.
Fanny, hasn’t everything burned?
No, no, the mind still goes around. It’s impossible to forget my husband Claude’s notebooks, for example, his curls of cursive on the table: “An animal, dog, rabbit, poisoned to life’s limit by curare, paralyzed, unable to act voluntarily, breathe spontaneously—this animal whose nerves are still excitable by electricity, will it feel the effects of strychnine?”
His questions reappear in print, posthumously, in collections of his Pensées. Seasons stutter, men turn into myths, arguments lead to other arguments, experiments to other experiments, and this purgatory is where we float among deeds going around—the sky just going around.
Didn’t the future Nobel laureate, vivisecting physiologist, and ectoplasm-discoverer Charles Richet extol about Claude and his ilk: “It seems these men—who pass their lives in sickening laboratories, among poisons and viruses, with no payment for their long days except the satisfaction of work accomplished—at least deserve everyone’s respect and esteem… No man gets rich in the physiological laboratories. No man achieves high social standing. But who cares! He spends his life relieving the suffering of others…”
Oh right, the suffering of others.
Claude had his quest, but oh how the Paris streets we knew at night, the boulevards that squeezed and roused us, still go around. His questions, you see, spring back to life through his disciples—Brown-Séquard, Vulpian, d’Arsonval, Laborde—celebrating the centenary of Robespierre by debating whether once you lose your head, you will or won’t regain it:
“We invoke,” adds Vulpian, “the experiment of Brown-Séquard, who, injecting warm blood in the carotid of a decapitated dog, managed to bring back a flash of intelligence and sensibility. I consider this an experimental wonder that Brown-Sequard will never repeat; and I’d add that the animal was also in a condition that we could never put a human in… Since, thanks to the stupid laws that regulate us, the head of an executed criminal doesn’t belong to science until after it has entered the gates of the cemetery.”
This cemetery doesn’t know if you died for good or for gain. Earth inhales us, head and all. But it’s good to know that even criminal corpses have rights in France, more than live dogs anyway. La Tribune Médicale, from July 26, 1885, continues:
“The experiment can be repeated at will—whether on dogs, cats, or rabbits—and the results will be the same, give or take some nuance, depending on something unforeseen in the operation, or the degree of resistance from the animal…
It could be advantageous, to minimize trauma and bleeding, to use the blade we used for the criminal, Gamahut…very sharp…and, if you hurry to get the head, you’ll see a few seconds of respiratory movement in the nostrils, especially visible in the rabbit, the blinking of eyes…
In certain favorable conditions, especially with newborns, and especially with cats whose vital resistance is, as we know, very strong, we’ve seen motor excitability persist up to the 6th, even the 7th minute…”
Look at me, alone out here telling tales, rather than leaving it to writers like Ms. Frances Cobbe. She’s collected these men’s vile recipes to include in her cookbook of sorts, Light in Dark Places—the protocols and illustrations from the physiologists’ textbooks as ingredients. She distributes thousands of copies for free. The animal “protection” societies in England, like ours in France, for all their love of kittens and overworked donkeys, have never, will never, stand up against vivisection. Even the board of her own Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals from Vivisection kicked Frances out for her continuing fight against vivisectors. Add in Madame Huot and there’s the lot of us in the firing line, down in the pit. Mothers of stray cats and dogs. We move shelter to shelter, filling them with homeless animals from the streets, before the pound can get them, before we’re shut down. It’s not just the medical laboratories anymore who come to the pound for their dogs and cats—but the “business” labs. Virility cream. TB tonic. Glandular ointment.
Go ahead and kick her out of the professional do-gooder clubs, but no one can keep Madame Huot away. She loves theater, and she’ll follow any professor to the front row who threatens to put on a show:
Dr. Laborde: “A courageous woman… with the tragic aura of a new Niobe, for the sake of a few frog hearts being transcribed tranquilly on a distant screen, threw herself from the shadows…”
Jules Besse, a journalist, spoke to her in person for La Vie Contemporaine:
“Mme Huot is the Henri Rochefort of animal socialism. With her famous intransigence, she’s maintained that animals are worth more than men.
‘I hate humanity,’ she said. ‘Animals are closer to God than we are, and anyone who doesn’t worship animals is cursed… Humans only act on self-interest. Only animals are knowing and loving.’
I responded: ‘Sure, there’s some knowing in their stomachs, and affection for those who feed them…’
‘No!’ she protested.’ Animals are the union of God and nature. I’m a ‘naturienne’.”
Definitely more a naturienne than Claude’s oldest sycophant, Émile Zola, was ever some kind of “naturalist.” What nature did he pretend to know but human nature, agitating for stick people in his repulsive postcards, pumping out novels like hot-air balloons going up and down, full of tourists to see the view—and then home for dinner!
Yet Madame Huot sets her own story straight: “Seven years later, thanks to some macabre experiments on the afterlife of the decapitated… Laborde, leader of the necrophiliacs, was named to the Academy of Medicine… staff in hand, in his big armchair… until I found out he was going to do a public experiment on guinea pigs, and I disrupted him…
There was a news item about it in Le Figaro, so the following Tuesday I distributed my own broadside, The Charlatans of Science, out on the sidewalk in front of the Academy: ‘A door is either open or closed: if the door of the Academy of Medicine is open, then any layman, witnessing repugnant acts, has the right to show his disgust and to remind the masters of the house that the public is a guest and we don’t normally invite people over to inflict sadistic performances on them—even in the name of science!’”
The novelist Ouida, repeats the sentiment: “… no art, no learning, no achievement dares to say as the physiologist says of his science, that the vulgar must not look on it, nor the multitudes pronounce on it.”
Germany’s top physiologist, Ludwig Braun, captures a dog’s panicked heart beating on film, exposed to the camera for measurement and analysis. With a living animal they can film life’s actions, stopped and sped up (for what else is life but movement, they say) and then, later, when the cat or rabbit or dog has died, the projector simply resurrects it. Professor Roger at the Medical School showed thirteen vivisection films to an amphitheater full of students: “They decapitate a guinea pig and put his head on a saucer. We see the bodyless head make desperate efforts to breathe. Very Grand-Guignol!”
Oh yes, step right up! The shock of the illusion makes people faint, they say. I haven’t gone for myself—there’s just so many sights to take in around Paris. Sarah Bernhardt starring in Victor Hugo’s latest, for one: ”The triumph of Ruy Blas… is the triumph of idealism over naturalism, the triumph of the soul over matter.”
Auguste Lumière, a chemist mind you, while spreading his gadgetry worldwide, also has time to cut up puppies to explore his theories of colloidal phenomena. Guignol for all!
Meanwhile, to artificially keep the Claude Bernard industry gasping along for twenty years after his death, a medical professor, Jousset de Bellesme, recycles the same old gossip about me, under the guise of an intimate memoire of Claude:
“His wife, already on the slippery slope of devotion, and gifted with an insane personality, couldn’t get on board with his vivisections. His liberal ideas irritated her, and since she wasn’t very bright, hostilities began in the form of innocuous teasing that degenerated into a war without truce. Living together became intolerable and the birth of two daughters brought no respite. Claude Bernard suffered without complaint. Absorbed in his research, he came home only to eat, and even then he kept his highest thoughts safe from the unceasing attacks, his placidity unperturbed, even though the women did nothing but insult him…”
It’s all about seeing what the heart is up to, isn’t it? An enemy’s heart, the spoil of war.
But there’s nothing I can do from this confined perch; our daughters, Jeanne-Henriette (we call her Tony) and Marie-Claude, stay holed up in their house, with ninety dogs and as many horses. Are they hiding in shame, or are people afraid of them because they’ve lost the smell of the human? They are no longer my girls, as they are not Claude’s. But being not-his they are equally his, an inescapable celebrity, and being not-mine they are also mine. Streets in his honor are popping up in every city, while they receive strays from those streets. He stood for something, they stand for something—even the most exhausted must keep standing. I guess if someone doesn’t hate you then you’re not standing high enough.
That’s why it’s that cursed Zola, astride France like a modern Tartuffe, who really galls me most. Does he even know how his cherished scientists all mocked his love letter to experimentalism? Onward, blindly, he populates his literary menagerie with “species” of people based on the types in Lavater’s physiognomies, kneeling before the forces of heredity and degeneracy, going on about rationality and the natural world, while inventing characters like Désirée or Nana—near-idiot women who are no more than chimeras:
“Nana was all hairy, a layer of red making her body velour; while on her rump and her galloping thighs, in the fleshy bulges cut in the deep folds that gave her sex a disturbing shadow, there was the animal. It was the golden animal, unconscious as a force, whose odor alone indulged the world.”
It’s been a long while since Zola sealed off his Rougon-Macquart series with his Le Docteur Pascal (supposedly based on Claude—but in which he neglects to mention either vivisection or physiology) and the experimental novelist finds himself without a project. Ah! The news provides a pedestal! A true-crime case, an actual innocent man. “J’accuse!“—over morning coffee—Zola wraps his bravery like a flag around France’s “dirty-jew” obsession. He’s right. He’s not wrong. He picks his battles, as do we all.
Anna Kingsford, tired, tireless, you stood in the streets and faced your readers, naming the crimes for which there was no single innocent to champion, no single file of faulty evidence to expose the cover-up. In your pamphlet Unscientific Science you said: “The modern arsenal is as fully complete as was that of the days of Torquemada or Isabella of Spain—only now the mute and innocent dog replaces the Jew or the heretic, and creatures which man judges his inferiors are bound to the wheel and tortured, with the hope of extorting from them the secret of life, in blind ignorance of the fact that Nature, outraged and agonized, replies like the human victim on the rack, more often by a lie than by a truth.”
Late in life when no other news caught his eye, Zola suddenly thinks to fill his obligatory column for Le Figaro with a trifle called “L’Amour des Bêtes”—a pleasant subject he wakes to late in the day, considering the collective swoon Paris has made over pets for half a century. Yet in he plunges, and the effect is immediate:
“I was stupefied by the result: over two hundred letters from around the world, many more than had ever arrived for any previous article… But what shocked me more were the letters from the ladies, all saying pretty much: ‘What? You love animals? You’re a great man despite what everyone says about your novels and about you!’”
What fabricated potion changed so many minds? The tear-jerking tale of his own dog, Fanfan, who died in his arms after a long illness? No, his effervescence to French pets only masks a deadlier silence because the catalyst for Zola’s sudden animal romance was the sight of a stray:
“How did the sight of this animal, coming and going, smelling the world, alarmed, visibly desperate at not finding its master, cause me such pity and anguish that it wasted my whole walk? Why did the memory of this lost dog haunt me through the night and next day, returning again and again with fraternal compassion, worried what it was doing, where it was, if it was caught, if it ate, if it wasn’t trembling in a corner somewhere? Why do I hold in the back of my memory these sad dogs without masters, whom I saw ten, twenty years ago, who’ve stayed with me…”
I’ll tell you why, Mr. Zola, as will anyone, because everyone knows what happens to strays, and you couldn’t have been ignorant of it if you tried. After all, you wrote a book celebrating the doings of our most prolific vivisector, my Claude, purveyor of screams that set Paris on edge.
Remember it was our hero who invented cutting the vocal cords and using the poison curareto silence and paralyze the animals… O, but do go on with your soul-searching, Mr. Famous Writer. Despite your admirable sentiments, there is a vast difference between attachment to pets (the number of vivisectors who had them is legendary) and a willingness to step in and stop their torture at the hands of your dinner companions.
Anna Kingsford: “…[vivisection] is, alone of all cruelties, protected by State legislation, although other and minor barbarisms are officially condemned. So long as the principle of cruelty is thus encouraged and kept alive by law, in the highest walks of science, all attempts to extirpate lesser cruelties must prove unavailing…. The present law of this country is a law manifestly unjust and cowardly. It attacks the dwarfs and respects the giants of cruelty. The poor man who, in the interests of his livelihood, accidentally overdrives his horse or his donkey, is punished by the very Legislature which protects the learned professor who systematically flays and burns alive scores of living creatures.”
Ridiculous as it seems, Mr. Zola is invited by a government minister to stand on stage at the annual gathering of the Animal Protection Society at Cirque d’Hiver. Of the four thousand people present at the ceremony, twelve hundred receive citations, medals and awards for good deeds done for animals. Zola finally steps forward and stuns the room:
“Thank you, animals, from the bottom of my heart and my imagination, all of you whom I put in my books. You are my family. I still see you galloping after the thousands of human creatures I put into the world, and this gives me pleasure, and I’m happy to have reserved your places in this immense ark.”
What does it even mean to thank your own fictional animals? The SPA may be as soft and toothless an organization as they come, yet I imagine not one member in attendance could believe what they heard.
Is it a case of madness, Mr. Zola, your retreat to utopianism after all those fact-finding missions? Are fictional animals and pets the recipients of your charity because neither requires you to leave your chair? Zola, to the crowd:
“Let’s love animals because they are the sketch, the experiment, the trial-and-error from which humans have emerged, with our relative perfection. Let’s love them because they are born, suffer, and die just as we do. Let’s love them because they are our older sisters, disabled and unfinished, without language to tell us their pains, without reason to make use of their gifts. Let’s love them because we are the most intelligent, which has made us strongest. Let’s love them in the name of fraternity and justice, to honor the creator in them, to respect the work of life and give our blood triumph, the red blood that is the same in their veins as in ours.”
Oh, right, the blood.
To study morals, volition, love, intelligence, emotions, open up the bodies.
Claude Bernard, Leçons sur les Phénomènes de la Vie: ”The most common experimental procedure to determine the functions of organs is to remove or destroy them, slowly or acutely…. This procedure of destruction or ablation… has been applied on a vast scale in the study of the nervous system.”
Leaves disintegrate as the weather turns. A flood brings up bones. If the cemetery gets too populated, I’ve heard they’ll move us down to the vaults with the other skulls and leg bones, all in rows. Empire of the Dead. The noises follow the stairway down into the ground and the lives layered beneath.
Anna Kingsford: “There is a complete contrast between the free sacrifice of oneself for the good of others and the enforced sacrifice of others for the good of oneself.”
What other city dances right on top of its ancestors? But the catacomb tunnels are unstable and there’s a limit to what can be built on top. Listen to the water moistening the roots. History paintings, in all their academic or naturalist splendor, wash away in swirls of color. Baudelaire: “Romanticism is found neither in the choice of subject nor the exact truth, but in a way of feeling…”
What becomes of characters cut from their plot?
Ladies, open the curtain and close the curtain and take the stages. “Fanny, you’ve done just about enough,” they beg, as we rehearse more songs, relating offstage events, keeping tabs on who’s who, and when and where. A chorus perfects the audience, seeing the tensions between the hero and himself. But which experiences can’t be described? Which looks won’t be returned? Whose pain will be turned into spiritual or scientific content, or fall outside the story altogether?
The chorus tries to tell. Suffering that isn’t too absurd we turn into history or blame on fate. But absurdity is a force that moves us to riot harder, stream up through the spectators with hair on fire. Composed of strays, the chorus protects its own, while another fire burns through the understory at the border—opening up light. The dragons rise out of thickest smoke, making unfamiliar gestures before disappearing into the past. It’s night, and neighbors pull up their coverlets, arrange their pillows, try to sleep.
Like the hundreds of dogs in Claude’s poison oven experiments, Émile Zola dies of carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney.
Wars become other wars, battles other battles, and Claude’s old student EJ Marey’s institute in the Bois de Boulogne is absorbed into a nearby tennis complex. Don’t worry, they leave his statue near the courts.
Anna Kingsford you stand ghostlike, statueless, on busy Paris streets:
“The fact of even calling something ‘the spirit of the century’ implies its subordination to public opinion. You are the public, have an opinion!”
Thalia Field’s previous works include Bird Lovers, Backyard (New Directions, 2010), Ululu (Clown Shrapnel, 2007), and Incarnate: Story Material (New Directions, 2004). She teaches interdisciplinary arts in the Literary Arts program at Brown University.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.