Cruelty to Animals

Brigid Brophy

  • Reckoning with the Beast by James Turner
    Johns Hopkins, 190 pp, £7.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 8018 2399 4
  • The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes by S. Zuckerman
    Routledge, 511 pp, £17.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0691 8

William Blake is surely the locus classicus for human sympathy with other-than-human animals. Anyone who is, as I am, seared by the cruelty and injustice humans inflict on their fellow animals will recognise in Blake his own perceptions expressed with unsurpassed accuracy and poignancy.

Blake died a decade before Victoria came to the throne. I am bound therefore to think that James Turner (who ‘teaches history’, the back flap says, ‘at the University of Massachusetts, Boston’) is mistaken in his central thesis that the Victorians witnessed ‘the emergence of a new, distinctively modern sensibility’ about animals. His time-slip is illustrated by his jacket. Like the jacket of the recent reissue of a novel of my own, it reproduces the Liverpool Stubbs, ‘The Green Monkey’. But Mr Turner’s subtitle is ‘Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind’ (in which the superfluous comma after ‘pain’ might pass, if one is being polite, for pastiche of Victorian punctuation). It sits ill on a picture not merely pre-Victorian in fact (painted 20 years before the future queen was begotten) but profoundly un-Victorian in sensibility.

Mr Turner calls the ‘sensibility’ he has in mind ‘kindness’, which in this context is mushy at best, resting, not on respect, but on a caprice that might be withdrawn, and which may even imply the fascist notion that the lives of animals are somehow forfeit to humans but can be redeemed by an act of clemency or leniency on the part of the boss species. His very terminology does violence to the pro-animal arguments of such Victorians as Henry Salt and Bernard Shaw (born in, respectively, 1851 and 1856), whose rational and essentially political thinking on the subject was grounded in the recognition that animals have rights. Neither does Mr Turner emphasise the essential point that sensibility, old or new, co-exists with an old insensibility that treats animals as things. It was the insensibility that was taken up by industrialisation and magnified into huge and organised structures. Animals are now imprisoned by the million in factory farms, prisoners on whom humans have passed both a life sentence and sentence of death, and tortured by the million in laboratories. When humans torture humans, there is usually information or compliance the prisoner can give that will make the torture stop. There is nothing the laboratory animal can do to stop it. He is treated as a tool to be used until the experimenter thinks a new one would serve better, whereupon he is killed or, as vivisectors prefer to call it, thinking it classier, perhaps, to play the priest than the butcher, ‘sacrificed’.

The bulk of Mr Turner’s not very bulky (and not very intellectually weighty, either) book concentrates on the Victorian period and on Britain and the USA. There are chapters on early legislation in defence of animals, the formation of the animal protection societies (where he draws on the minute-books preserved by the RSPCA), Darwinism, vivisection and the first ecological stirrings. He remarks that, at some pre-Victorian period which he does not name but which context and notes suggest may be the Renaissance, imaginative literature employed animals ‘mainly as symbols of human vices and virtues’. He doesn’t, however, take the analogy with or the warning for his own writing of history. He shows little confidence that his Victorians are worth studying in their own right. He is for ever giving them small tugs in the direction of relevance to the present day. Indeed, he finishes with the admonition: ‘We tend now, with good reason, to smile at the sentimentality and anthropomorphism of Victorian animal lovers. But we cannot afford to let our amusement turn to condescension. We are their children.’

In reality, he gives surprisingly few examples of sentimentality or anthropomorphism and virtually nothing to smile at, much of his material inevitably being of the kind that a fibre from the brain does tear, and one of his illustrations being as horrible as the Stubbs is sympathetic.

Set on establishing a special relationship between us and the Victorians, he treats almost everything pre-Victorian with a large high-handedness. Though conceding that it was adumbrated by ‘the 18th-century cult of benevolence’, he claims that the Victorians originated an ‘obsession with pain’ which we are still pursuing. This he contrasts with unspecified ‘earlier centuries’. ‘Pain,’ he asserts, ‘had not always inspired such loathing.’ It is to the Victorian ‘revulsion from suffering’ that he ascribes ‘kindness’ to animals. ‘What did people sympathise with in animals?’ he asks. ‘Pain. What ... gave animals a right to human consideration? Their ability to feel pain.’ And he goes on to credit the Victorian ‘revulsion from pain’ with ‘a major role, far transcending the narrow question of kindness to animals, in reshaping prevailing visions of the “good life” and the good society’. Indeed, it is to the same source that he attributes the present-day ‘pervasiveness of the so-called pornography of violence’, on the grounds that ‘it is precisely our reaction to pain that makes violence titillating.’

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