Experimental Animals

By Thalia Field


Solid Objects
November 2016

Reviewed by Steven Felicelli


From the fragmented, conditional prose of Point & Line to the 'performance novel' ULULU (Clown Shrapnel), Thalia Field has established herself as a prominent figure in the world of 'experimental literature.' What one means by 'experimental literature' (usually qualified by its proponents: for lack of a better term) is an ongoing debate. What does it mean to be 'experimental'? What are the historical lineaments of experimentation and what sorts of miracles and monsters have been engendered thereby? 

In her new 'reality fiction' Experimental Animals, Field attempts to "back story" the experimental ethos and illuminate peripheral players in a formative chapter of modernity. To that end, Fanny Bernard, wife of medical pioneer and vivisectionist Claude Bernard, is drawn forth from between the lines of history. Her unsung counter-operation of animal rescue and activism is here belatedly documented for posterity. It's a reclamation project, which Field, in a recent interview with The Rumpus, likens to an archaeological dig: ". . . so many bones from so many characters—it felt sometimes impossible to put together a coherent skeleton."

Hounding her lawful husband at every turn, Fanny and her band of righteous animal thieves act as Claude's judge, jury and, in the opinion of co-protagonist Anna Kingsford, his executioner (having hounded him to death). The Bernard marriage is a tale of two wills, each steadfast in the absolute rightness of his or her cause (morality v. science) and depending on the lens through which one views history, Claude is either the Galileo of physiology or (as Field re-casts him) its Torquemada. Graphic depictions of animal cruelty are documented by the vivisectionist himself in a clinical tone, which betrays not a hint of remorse:

[W]hen the sensorium is strongly excited, the muscles of the body are generally thrown into violent action, and as a consequence loud sounds are uttered, however silent the animal may generally be, and although the sounds may be of no use. Hares and rabbits, for instance, never, I believe, use their vocal organs except in the extremity of suffering. We have also seen that intense pain, like rage, leads to violent outcries, and the exertion of screaming by itself gives some relief; and thus the use of the voice will have become associated with suffering of any kind.

This poetic passage is tainted by its arising out of the vivisectionist's torture chamber. Each of Claude's clinical reports reads like a villain's confession and yet he cites his abominable crimes as if they were the glad tidings of enlightenment. The outrageous irony—Bernard: "I will do my best to say things that cannot be understood differently from what I intend"—would be hilarious if it weren't underwritten by the extreme suffering of living creatures. Because this, after all, is a 'reality' fiction. These are not fictive figments, but sensate beings who suffered the extremities of vivisection unto death (though Bernard notes his merciless efforts to keep them alive as long as possible). Its cast of characters were real beings in a real world, as the author names names (Anna Kingsford, Charles Darwin, Émile Zola, et al.) and cites historical documents and images, rather than exercising poetic license in a roman à clef. Structurally experimental, the novel is simultaneously an exercise in the most devout realism. À la Zola, this experimental realism is linked to the anti-vivisectionist literature, which Field lauds (in her Rumpus interview) for the graphic depictions they'd disseminated:

The images, the eyewitness accounts, the descriptions and sensational aesthetics, these forms of communication . . . could undermine language used to justify or establish 'norms.' This to me is the essence of realism here—to do what needs to be done to bring awareness . . .

The historical backdrop is the rise and fall of the Paris Commune, pitting two dogmatic and bellicose factions. These are years animated by antipathy and characterized by carnage from a "collision of ideas": Prussia v. France, Empire v. Commune, Science v. Spirituality, Reason v. Romanticism, Positivism v. Free will, Man v. Nature ('Woman' defending the latter from the former). The antinomies are myriad in this determinative epoch and Field deftly problematizes each thesis/antithesis. For instance, it is an odd position for the artist to side with religious fanatics and yet that's clearly where Field stands (along with Goethe and Hugo). But where do we place Darwin, who becomes physically ill at the sight of animal abuse and yet insists on the unfettered progress of science (vivisection included)? And what about George Eliot, champion of progress and scientific knowledge, who calls her novels 'a set of experiments in life'? No easy syntheses emerge, only open questions regarding agency, knowledge, and the reach of fellow feeling.

Reminiscent of works as diverse as Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats, Kate Zambreno's Heroines, W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, and James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, Field's new novel is a ghost story of epic proportions. Therein, the names of Anna Kingsford (aka Ninon aka Rosamunda the Princess aka the virgin) and Fanny Bernard take their rightful place in human history, while Claude Bernard's journal entries are cut and pasted into the annals of inhumanity. (One minute you're "the father of modern medicine," rubbing elbows with Pasteur and the next, some 'experimental novelist' comes along and casts you down into the company of Josef Mengele.) This is not solely a revisionist hagiography, however, as Field has her own agenda in righting the record. She wants to know what animates these strange animals, her historical conspecifics. How do their experiments and subversions illuminate our own? Why did they think, feel, say, and do what they thought, felt, said, and did?

And are Field's vocational 'experiments' any less monomaniacal than Claude's? Her (the artist's) unquenchable thirst for meaning any less Faustian? Is she perhaps launching Anna Kingsford's criticisms at herself by quoting:

[I]nstead of rushing with all your might to the rescue, you are to stand by and do nothing but talk, or else go home and write something 'attacking the principle'. No; the power to interfere and save imposes the duty to interfere and save . . .

Or is the writing itself what interferes, saves, etc.? Difficult to say what the writing does, as literature is not a cause and effect proposition. Its experiments yield ambiguous, multifarious results, not data from which to deduce universal laws.

Ultimately, these abused animals are long dead, as are the women and men who waged war on their behalf. What survives, or rather what has been revived, is the horror, the compassion, and the indomitable No! of those fellow creatures who stood in defiance of life's reduction to mere specimen.