Friday, April 19, 2013

Beatrice & Virgil

In Yan Martel's most recent novel, “Beatrice & Virgil”, Beatrice is a donkey, and Virgil a monkey. They are exhibits in a taxidermist's shop. Despite being dead, they talk, and indeed talk with each other about matters of great profundity.

The taxidermist himself, is a man of equally great profundity. When, for instance, he speaks of taxidermy, he makes you see it in a new way:
Is there a level of barbarism involved in taxidermy? I see none. Or only if one lives a life entirely sheltered from death in which one never looks into the back room of a butcher shop, or the operating room of a hospital, or the working room of a funeral parlour. Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body. It is from there that both babies and cancers are born. To ignore death, then, is to ignore life. I no more mind the smell of an animal's carcass than I do the smell of a field; both are natural and each has its attaching particularity.
.........taxidermists do not create a demand. We merely preserve a result. I have never hunted in my life and have no interest in the pursuit. I would never harm an animal. They are my friends. When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past. What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death. In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it. Every animal I have mounted has been an interpretation of the past. I am a historian, dealing with an animal's past; the zookeeper is a politician, dealing with an animal's present; and everyone else is a citizen who must decide on that animal's future. So you see, we are dealing here with matters so much weightier than what to do with a dusty stuffed duck inherited from an uncle......
While reading “Beatrice & Virgil”, I wondered why taxidermists stuff only animals. Why not humans too? Like, when your Loved Ones of the human species die – your old Mum or old Dad, or dear Wife - you could have a taxidermist stuff them. You would put them in a special room in your house, and you could talk to them whenever you feel like it. It would be like they'd never died.

Why has this never caught on?


  1. I, too, read "Beatrice & Virgil". I found it a somewhat strange novel.

    To put words into the mouths of animals, so that they speak as humans, and talk of their feelings of terror and pain, makes us realise that animals do in fact feel all these emotions as intensely as do humans. Perhaps even more so.

    This in itself makes "Beatrice & Virgil" an important read.

    1. I couldn't have put it better myself.

  2. Jeremy Bentham is famously preserved and on display in a glass case at University College London (so they say). All but his, head, that is, which was stolen by King's College in a student rag. The head now on display is, thus, is a fake.

    Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that higher animals have feelings, language and emotions just like Man, only to a lesser degree.

  3. "Darwin wrote......that higher animals have feelings....... just like Man, only to a lesser degree...."

    How did Darwin know that animals have these feeling only to a lesser degree?

    He could only know if he was, or had been, an animal himself. Perhaps, though, he actually was one, or had been.

  4. Darwin treats extensively of these attributes of animals, particularly in chapters 3 and 4, by means of objective and scientific observation. There is, of course, no subjective test any more than there is between humans. The faculties are seen to evolve just like everything else.

    As always, Darwin is painstaking and thorough and it is difficult to choose suitable quotes, but here are some samples:

    ... the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children ...

    ... The fact that the lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves is so well established, that it will not be necessary to weary the reader by many details. Terror acts in the same manner on them as on us, causing the muscles to tremble, the heart to palpitate, the sphincters to be relaxed and the hair to stand on end. Suspicion, the offspring of fear is eminently characteristic of wild animals ...

    ... female elephants ,,, intentionally practise deceit ...

    ... Courage and timidity are extremely variable qualities in the individuals of the same species, as is plainly seen in dogs ...

    ... anecdotes have been published on the long-delayed and artful revenge of various animals
    [here he cites his authorities, which he is always meticulous about – he had enormous correspondence with leading naturalists all over the world]

    ... an officer plagued a baboon. ... the animal, seeing him approach one Sunday for parade, poured water into a hole and hastily made some thick mud, which he skilfully dashed over the officer ... the baboon rejoiced and triumphed whenever he saw his victim ...

    And so he continues, rich with examples and illustrations including complex emotions such as love, self-complacency, shame, excitement, ennui, wonder, curiosity, attention jealousy, gratitude, magnanimity, right and wrong, and dread.

    Consider these, too:

    ... it can hardly be disputed that the social instincts are instinctive or innate in lower animals.

    ... the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them and to perform various services ...

    In the present economic climate they are naturally hit by the cuts, as are so many.

  5. Darwin is illustrating that animals have feelings and emotions just like the Human. He doesn't, though, seem to imply that animals feel these feelings to a lesser degree than does the Human.

    Perhaps he wrote this long after he wrote that "....higher animals have feelings....... just like Man, only to a lesser degree....". So that he had had time, after much reflection, to modify his earlier thoughts, in the way we all modify our thoughts as we get older?

  6. I was speaking only from memory, Christopher. I see I shall have to my statement or lose all credibility.