Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Many will dismiss Wells' tale as a racist's fever dream, a parable that blames the failings of English imperialism on subjects who were just too beastly to be properly civilized. And it would be easy to do so. Wells was a vocal proponent of Eugenics, and the text of this book does contain passages like the ones I've reproduced below.

First, Moreau tells of how he used the delicate art of vivisection to carve a 'negroid type' out of an ape he had on hand:

“Then I took a gorilla I had; and upon that, working with infinite care and mastering difficulty after difficulty, I made my first man. All the week, night and day, I moulded him. With him it was chiefly the brain that needed moulding; much had to be added, much changed. I thought him a fair specimen of the negroid type when I had finished him..."

Then our protagonist describes another of Moreau's creations:

"The Satyr was a gleam of classical memory on the part of Moreau,—his face ovine in expression, like the coarser Hebrew type; his voice a harsh bleat, his nether extremities Satanic. He was gnawing the husk of a pod-like fruit as he passed us."

Although the above passages seem to be fairly damning evidence of a racially motivated agenda, I would suspect that Wells' prejudices inadvertently seeped into his narrative while, perhaps intentionally, writing another parable altogether. This work could just as easily be read as a warning against what he believed happens when a society turns its back on God and religion. Then again, he could simply have been writing a tale about the dangers of science in the hands of insane and wicked men.

And I think it's because of the various ways this story can be interpreted that it's been a perrenial favorite and will continue to be so for years to come.

Or, its staying power could be merely the result of Wells having written a great, imaginative story.

I particularly liked the scenes in which Moreau explains himself.

"To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter[...] The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature."

I also was struck by the unexplored horrific cinematic possibilities of a film wherein Moreau's method of carving humanity into beasts using vivisection is shown in all its gory detail. Imagine a scene with Moreau carving up a beast in his laboratory with a voiceover of his monologue on pain playing throughout:

"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 [...] 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 [...] 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 [...] 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."

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