Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 23: His is the Lightning-Flash, His is the Deep Salt Sea

In A Grief Observed -- a book that, as you read it, you feel like you shouldn't be allowed to read -- C. S. Lewis writes: "Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?" As it happens, this desolate questioning of the God Lewis has spent much of his adult life believing and serving, and will come to again, rather neatly summarizes the plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells's bleak, even black-hearted tale of mad science, torture, and transformation.

You can pretty much choose your parallel: either the animals, transformed by the mad Dr. Moreau, via vivisection, into near-human monstrosities go from believing Moreau is essentially God, until his death makes them question everything he'd taught them in order to control their naturally savage instincts ("Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not men?"), before our narrator, Edward Prendick, picks up Moreau's thread of deification and restores the creatures' need to worship in order to save his own skin (not that you can blame him) only to see things go one step beyond Lewis and revert back to dumb savagery; or Prendick sees his view of civilized humanity smashed again and again, until even the everyday world he finally returns to seems populated by people just shy of animalistic wildness, but managing to achieve a kind of peace in the end -- one brought on by voluntary solitude, mind you, but you take what you can get.

Or the novel can be both of these things, and in fact is. The Island of Dr. Moreau is astonishingly rich, in other words, despite being quite short. This richness is a bit backloaded, occurring almost entirely in the later portions of the book as the full ramifications, both immediate and philosophical, of Moreau's obliviousness become clear.

But he was so irresponsible, [Prendick writes of Moreau] so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully.

This might double as a description of human existence, depending on how bad you feel about the whole thing. Wells explains the book, which he also called "rather painful", this way:

The Island of Dr. Moreau in an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.

God, or the absence of God -- or the idea of God, or the idea of the absence of God -- is everywhere in The Island of Dr. Moreau. The lives of Prendick, Moreau, and Moreau's drunken, angry assistant Montgomery are only preserved by Moreau's ability to make his cast-off creations believe that he, Moreau, is their maker, which is true enough, but also their God, and their punisher. The Laws (spoken famously, in a somewhat altered form, by Bela Lugosi in the controversial 1932 film version Island of Lost Souls) that Moreau has taught to his creatures each has, as its core, an attempt to thwart natural, instinctive animal behavior. This is his entire reason for conducting these vivisections (which, by the way, is the no-longer-allowed practice of dissecting a still-living animal), but he also knows the moment those laws are questioned, or more likely the moment the "creeping Beast flesh", Moreau's description of the slow return of his failed creations' natural behavior, which process is the reason Moreau considers every experiment up to the novel's action to be a failure, obliterates whatever he's tried to make the Beasts believe, is the moment his neck is well and truly on the line. And so it eventually proves, of course, so that at one point in the novel, God, from the perspective of Montgomery's domesticated butler creature M'ling, or the Ape Man, or the Hyena-Swine, or the Dog Man, or the Sayer of the Laws, is well and truly dead.

This idea would not particularly impress Prendick, whom, in a moment of anger, Montgomery calls a "logic-chopping, chalky-faced saint of an atheist". This revelation, as it were, comes a little bit out of a blue, and renders his subsequent attempt, a mostly successful one, to deify himself in place of the deceased Moreau unquestionably cynical. But it's pretty clear that at this point its claim to be Jesus (which is essentially what he does for Moreau, too, telling the Beasts that Moreau is not dead but has cast off his body and ascended to heaven; yet Prendick remains on Earth to preach on his behalf, so it gets muddled if viewed from a strictly Christian point of view, a choice of reading that is, to say the least, unnecessary) or die. The events of the novel, and life in general, have already destroyed any spirituality of Montgomery, the one man who may have possessed any going in, because I think it's safe to assume the ruthlessly rational Moreau had room in his mind to only think about vivisection and transformation. Late in the novel, Montgomery, who has already confessed to Prendick that he was basically shanghaied by Moreau one drunken night after medical school, rages against the cosmos:

"This silly ass of a world...What a muddle it all is! I haven't had any life. I wonder when it's going to begin. Sixteen years being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will, five in London grinding hard at medicine -- bad food, shabby lodgings, shabby clothes, shabby vice -- a blunder -- I don't know any better -- and hustled off to the beastly island. Ten years here! What's it all for, Prendick? Are we bubbles blown by a baby?"

Tell Prendick something he doesn't know. Typically in books or stories like this, our straight-edged narrator is little more than a dull witness, marshaling all the considerable good within him to perform heroic acts when the narrative calls for it. Prendick is rather different, and in the early pages of The Island of Dr. Moreau his life is one of a man suffering one cruelty after another. Barely surviving a shipwreck to be picked up by a ship that happens to be carrying Montgomery and M'ling, as well as a new batch of animals picked up by Montgomery for Moreau's experiments, back to Moreau's island. It is Montgomery who nurses Prendick back to health, but when Montgomery and his animals come into conflict with the ship's drunken captain, Prendick's desire to help his savior serves only to turn the captain on him, so that when they reach port, the captain orders off the ship and into a dinghy. Moreau, who has arrived to collect Montgomery and his specimens, notices an imploring look from Montgomery on Prendick's behalf, and coldly says to Prendick "Can't have you."

This episode actually ends with Prendick writing "I prayed aloud to God to let me die," which calls into question Montgomery's labelling of him as an atheist, though when that time comes Prendick doesn't argue the point. Regardless, this moment, of Prendick suddenly alone and friendless, only a strong tide away from being lost at sea, is one of the novel's most painful. The island's few natives eventually take pity on him, but I feel like the damage has already been done. Prendick is well on the path that will lead him to view all humanity is little more than savage, pitiless seekers of only their own gratification. What he finds on the island certainly won't do anything to weaken that view, and anyway how different from the fearsome Hyena-Swine, who Prendick will come to view as his personal enemy, is that drunken captain? Or Moreau? Or Prendick himself, even, who barely ever acts to help the creatures being so mercilessly tortured -- and for what? -- by Moreau, and by his own admission only cares about it because he can hear the animal screams:

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe -- I have thought since -- I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.

This, it must be said, conforms to the cynic's appraisal of humanity pretty cleanly. But who says Prendick exempts himself anyway? After he's made it back home and has chosen to remove himself from as much of mankind as he can possibly manage, so that he will no longer have to see barely-human citizens of London "with tired eyes and eager faces like wounded deer dripping blood", it's entirely possible that this choice was made not just to be alone for his own sake, but to remove opportunities for himself to behave too callously or with too much self-interest. He even admits as much:

And even it seemed that I, too, was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain, that sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with the gid.

By the end, The Island of Dr. Moreau seems to be far more Prendick's novel, to actually be about him, than it did during the long middle stretches of terror and mystery, and of Moreau's long, diseased rationalizations. The novel drags Prendick's spirit down, down, and down, until only isolation can restore it to any degree ("But this is a mood that comes to me now -- I thank God -- more rarely."). C. S. Lewis would chart his slow, painful return to a sort of peace, as well ("Didn't people dispute once whether the final vision of God was more an act of intelligence or of love? That is probably another of the nonsense questions.") Lewis's God is perhaps Prendick's Beasts: the central question through which they each grapple with the more tactile bits of their normal lives.

* * * * * *
In the various screen adaptations of Wells's novel, the beasts are apt to take center stage. This is only natural, and even desirable in terms of screen drama. It is a function of first person narration, which is what Wells employs, that unless your narrator is constantly in the thick of things, a certain amount of action is going to be missed, and in the case of The Island of Dr. Moreau it's rather surprising how much of that action happens off-stage. This would defeat the entire purpose of the best screen adaptation of the novel (well, I haven't seen the TV version from 1977, but I don't mind assuming in this case), 1932's Island of Lost Souls, directed by Erle C. Kenton and starring Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen and "The Panther Woman" (now that's showmanship). The film, which will be released for the first time on DVD, or home video of any kind, by Criterion this coming Tuesday, is one of the more alarming horror films of the pre-Code era, with its air of almost cackling sadism, as personified by Charles Laughton's superb and properly vile take on Moreau, its, at times, near-merciless violence, and also its, you know, blatant hint of bestiality. The Panther Woman -- actually Kathleen Burke -- ain't there for nothin'.

The Panther Woman would have to be the film's equivalent of Wells's puma, which is the creature Moreau is working on, and whose screams Prendick can't block out until he's moved to sort-of act. But in the novel, the puma would really rebel and vent its rage violently (the puma was a female, by the way) while the Panther Woman is more content to fall in love with Edward Parker (née Prendick, I suppose), which is exactly what Moreau wants, or he wants what that will lead to. "Perverse" maybe doesn't exactly cover it. Of course, Kathleen Burke looking the way she does calls into question how one gets there from a panther via vivisection, but one could reasonably ask the same question of the novel -- despite Wells's insistence that that stuff was based on at least theoretical fact -- and those Beasts aren't even that hot.

Island of Lost Souls is pretty gleeful about its whole way of being, or maybe "heedless" is the better word. Although this would be far from unheard of today, the way this film off-handedly dispatches of its lone source of comic relief is actually pretty shocking. It's hard to relieve comically when that's how you're treated. The film is also gorgeous, perhaps predictably so, with Karl Struss manning the camera, so that the whole thing, the island and Moreau's compound, has a King Kong-esque level of depth, the jungle in which the story unfolds possesses a genuine, leafy thickness. It's all just wonderfully brisk and weird and full, boiling Wells down and extracting the pulp, a process that Wells evidently objected to like it was vivisection or something, publicly deriding the film as coarse or vulgar or some such thing. Which it is, at least vulgar, but Montgomery occasionally railed against Prendick for not being vulgar enough, and who knows? It might have done him some good.


Greg F. said...

I can hardly wait to get the DVD. Haven't seen it in years. I'd like to read the book, too. Haven't read much Wells but I like the themes he deals with, whether they be heavy-handed approaches or not, at least he approaches them. While the God factor is the prominent undercurrent, especially since actual creation is involved, there's also a lot going on about mad, cultish, leaders/dictators, at a time (I'm speaking of the movie now) when the world was installing many of them to try and make things work.

bill r. said...

It's a good book -- I was worried that it would be a bit of a slog, as pulp can be if it's not done with enough style, and I was actually very surprised by how powerful and provocative it was.

And the movie's great too. I'd never seen it before, but had been wanting to for I don't know how long. Laughton is so good.

Greg F. said...

Laughton is so good.

That blurb could be added to the DVD cover of every movie he ever appeared in and it would never be wrong.