Monday, May 23, 2005

Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Startled by the sci-fi author's eloquence, and to find in this tale an amalgam of Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe, apposite to today as we embark toward cloning, and genetic (so to speak) art. That is what Moreau is, as a creator in the image of the Creator; an artist. Vivisection is "Monsters manufactured!" in Prendick's epiphany. The trajectory though is the usual Romantic one, found in Mary Shelley, here, and later of course in entertainments like Jurassic Park: the creature outpaces the creator. In each narrative of course that creature is the correlative of the creator's ambition, so it is from within him that his outward destruction is wrought.

Wells remains close to Prendick's sensorium, and the state of perennial disorientation keeps the leaves turning: "I awoke through an avenue of tumultuous dreams, dreams of guns and howling mobs, and became sensible of a hoarse shouting above me. I rubbed my eyes, and lay listening to the noise, doubtful for a little while of my whereabouts. Then came a sudden pattering of bare feet..." It is the common fantasy trope of sleep differing small from waking.

Moreau identifies its own oneiric drive, the doubleness at the core of all fantasias, in Prendick's apprehension of the beast-men: "Suddenly, as I watched their grotesque and unaccountable gestures, I perceived clearly for the first time what it was that had offended me, what had given me the two inconsistent and conflicting impressions of utter strangeness and yet of the strangest familiarity." Both at once, being and not-being, is the grotesque as identified by Frye.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
could be read as reactionary toward evolution, or as a celebration of it. Moreau is optimistic about the final vestigial nature of pain. This is his finest speech: "I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution. Did you? And pain gets needless. Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be I fancy 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, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. 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 men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came."

Moreau's project, then, is to humanize the beast, to vivisect and resculpt the Ipecacuanha's puma into the image of a man. His failure may indicate the futility--or the falseness--of his ambition. "First one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface and stares out at me...But I will conquer yet. Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all of the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own." Had he performed these operations on himself, through e.g. self-flagellation or autoimmolation, he would be a model ascetic. Wells's novel is a repudiation of Pauline theology. But nothing here begins to exhaust the force of Moreau's speech.

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