Monday, 6 March 2017

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)

Names are human. Animals do without then, but we humans like to name ourselves and the world around us; and, moreover, we like to string together elaborate webs and skeins of names into—for instance—novels. Wells's beast-men novel The Island of Doctor Moreau appeared in the middle of his early burst of amazing creativity that also, as we have been seeing, produced The Time Machine (in which humans devolve into bestial forms) and 1898's The War of the Worlds (in which bestial aliens smash civilisation). Something was on his mind: a Darwinian something—Wells, of course, had studied under Darwin's disciple, T H Huxley. Before Darwin humans had believed themselves unique, god-formed, fundamentally different to animals. Darwin said: not so. Humans are merely animals mutated by evolution. The Island of Doctor Moreau is the first great novel of that revolution in thought. And what a novel: concise, readable and superbly memorable, thought-provoking and dream-haunting. A stone-cold  masterpiece.

The story is well-known. A well-bred Englishman, Edward Pendrick, becomes marooned upon a Pacific island inhabited only by the vivisectionist Dr Moreau, his assistant Montgomery and the various half-men Moreau has fashioned by surgical interventions into animal life—surgery undertaken without the benefit of anaesthesia. These beast-beings have developed a rudimentary religion, with Moreau himself as a combined God of Mercy and Pain (‘His is the Hand that wounds,’ is their chant, ‘His is the Hand that heals’). The novel’s Scientific Eden also includes a version of the Biblical command not to eat from the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’: Moreau has ordered his beast-men not to taste blood. This command is, of course, transgressed, and Pendrick watches, a horrified bystander, as the creatures revert to their murderously bestial origins. Wells later cheerily called the book ‘an exercise in youthful blasphemy’ and ‘theological grotesque’. Filmed many times, adapted and continued by other writers, the bad Doctor's name has become a shorthand for vivisectionist sadism and creative bestiality.

Less than halfway through his story the narrator suddenly exclaims: ‘“Moreau! ...I know that name.”’ Fameux Moreau, it seems. And critics have made much of the naming in this novel. Moreau in French means ‘brown-skinned, like a Moor’, and whilst the Moreau Wells portrays is exaggeratedly White, with a long white beard (a parody God-the-Father) he is also the novel’s locus for its anxieties about race, miscegenation and pollution—very much part of the cultural context of imperial Britain in the 1890s. Other critics have suggested that the first syllable of Moreau’s name hints at mors, morte, death; just as the second (eau of course means water) points to his islander isolation, or perhaps the fluidity with which he treats flesh, or conceivably the blasphemous ‘baptism’ he performs upon his animals.

But we can go further. It has always seemed to me that ‘Moreau’ is an extended or crumbling-at-the-edges version of the name ‘More’, the man who wrote the world’s first Utopia—another fable set upon a distant island where human nature was reworked and refined. Moreau’s island is actually named ‘Noble’s Island’ on the map, a name which gestures ironically at nobility whilst also including an echo of More’s original tale in its first syllable; for the name ‘utopia’ is a learned pun that means both ‘good-place’ and ‘bad-place’. ‘No-bles’, Wells's ‘No-’ island, is a place distinctly unblessed, twisting More’s happy utopian paradigm into monstrous, dystopian shapes.

What of Edward Prendick? Personally I've always thought there's something of the ‘pretender’ compressed into his surname; and although the protagonist of this story is named for the then Prince of Wales, Wells's framing conceit is that novel is actually being presented to us by Edward's nephew (the ‘Introduction’ is authored by him), named after the Young Pretender, Charles Edward. To what, we wonder, is Prendick pretending? To his humanity, presumably. What was once taken to be ontological bedrock has, since Darwin, been revealed as a thin veneer laid over a fundamentally bestial base.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a novel whose symbolic meanings are so richly layered that, as with this discussion of naming, it is easy to get carried away. Margaret Atwood once wrote a brief introduction to the novel in which she offered, in quick succession, ten different readings: Moreau as evolutionary thought experiment, as 1890s imperial adventure yarn, as scientific romance, as a rewriting of The Tempest, or the Bible or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and so on. There’s fun to be had in such ludic hermeneutics, although I can’t help wondering if such prodigality of interpretation rather misses the point of Wells’ novel. Because, actually, The Island of Doctor Moreau is simple. Its brute clarity is the ground for its enduring appeal. It is simple because animals are simple, relatively speaking. We keep pets, and some people prefer pets to people, because pets give us crucial things—companionship, loyalty, love—without all the complications entailed by adult human relationships. The simplicity of animals is not an innocence, of course. It would be more than na├»ve of us to think so; it would be a category error. Yet simplicity is a central part of the way the beast signifies to humanity. This last qualification is important: simplicity, like complexity, is a human, not a bestial, conception. It means nothing to animals themselves except in the context of their relationship to humanity.

Wells is superb on the ramifications of this simplicity: not only its potential for violence—its, to use a loaded term, ‘barbarism’—but also its eerie glamour, compounded of charm and strangeness. All genuinely simple beings partake of this glamour, I think, because the intrinsic richness and complexity of human existence throws the truly simple into a starkly lovely but inhuman contrast. Hence, for example, the elvish quality of the first dog-, puma-, pig- and monkey-men Prendrick encounters: ‘they wore turbans too, and thereunder peered out their elfin faces at me, faces with protruding lower jaws and bright eyes’ [32]. Hence, too, the faerie ‘pointed ears and luminous eyes’ of Montgomery’s assistant.

Freud mapped this territory expertly in his Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), but Wells got their first. The Island of Doctor Moreau understands completely that violence is simple where civilisation (negotiation, compromise, repression) is complicated. Moreau holds his beast men in check with a Law that is a nominalisation of Pain, his medium for creating them: a simple, if precarious, strategy. The trace of the novel is the disintegration or degeneration of this imposed structure.

If we think about it for a moment, the pain Moreau inflicts upon his creatures ought to bother us a great deal. I don’t mean in an ethical sense (of course that!) but practically speaking. Why does he not use anaesthetics? The tale is written in 1895, and is set in 1887. Ether and chloroform had been widely used in surgery since the 1840s. But no: Moreau refuses to anaesthetise his victims, because pain is as much a part of his surgical tool-kit as blades or suture-thread. In his own terrifying words: ‘each time I dip a living creatures 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’ [106]. There’s a name for that, too: sadism. One of the things Wells is doing in this novel is dramatizing a sort of apotheosis of sadism. Pain as a metaphysical horizon of being.

There’s more to this, though, novel than can covered by the description ‘sadism’. Prendrick asks Moreau why ‘he has taken the human form as his model’. ‘There seemed to me then,’ he adds, ‘and seems to me now, a strange wickedness in that choice.’ Moreau’s answer (‘he had chosen that form by chance’) is very evidently not the truth of the matter. Prendrick perhaps takes the ‘strange wickedness’ that means him queasy to be blasphemy, but I think the novel is saying something else, leading us towards a rather different sort of name: love.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is populated with variform Moreauian beast-men, but there is only one female in the novel, painstakingly (literally) created out of an altered puma. Several critics have noticed a sexual subtext here. ‘Cat’ was Victorian slang of prostitute. Wells, a sexually promiscuous man, adopted the pet-name ‘Jaguar’ when he was with his lover Rebecca West, just as she was ‘Panther’. It certainly looks as though Moreau is in the business of making a mate for himself.

But this is also his downfall. Though it is the taste for blood that encourages the beast-men to revolt, it is the escape of the puma-woman that spells Moreau’s individual doom. We recognise the rightness of this, I think. It is quite appropriate to Wells’s fable that unleashed female potency is the force to destroy Moreau’s garden Eden. The novel is saying: beasts are simple, and pain is simple. But it is also saying: love is not simple, and it is love that collapses Moreau’s brutal idyll. Which brings me back round to names, one again. For this fate also is buried in his name, too as if Wells has excavated Moreau’s name from the Tarot card that could predict his doom, LAMOUREAUX, the lovers.

1 comment:

  1. "In his own terrifying words: ‘each time I dip a living creatures 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’ "

    Significantly -- at least, it is a part of the book that i remember, without having reread it recently -- Moreau demonstrates that he knows how to stab himself (in a special place on his leg where there are purportedly no nerve endings) without causing pain. He is self-exempt, in a horrible way, from the same pain that he causes to his creations. This can have a fairly simple meaning (sadists don't cause the same pain to themselves that they cause to others), but also it's a religious burlesque of the way in which the Christian God causes pain to every created being but suffers no pain itself, so much so that Christ had to appear to remedy this lack.