Sunday, March 01, 2020

A final depth of debasement

But here is what you need to understand — here is why you are in danger. Here is why you must speak, and why you must not allow us to speak for you. Because history is an act of continuous collective imagining, and the perception of truth is a constant, unending negotiation, with others, and with oneself when one is alone.
It took a few chapters for me to warm to this book. While not exactly Dickensian, it's weighted with a cast of colourful characters, social inequalities, and 18th-century thinking. Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer, feels claustrophobic, but ultimately that adds to the experience. I love this book.

It's the age of progress and of backward medicine. It's the Age of Reason, but very few people are actually enlightened, and fewer still care enough to struggle to achieve that state. Much is made of the village's surgeon diligently working his way through John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

The story revolves around Mary Toft, an actual historical figure who allegedly gave birth to seventeen rabbits, albeit dead, partial, and dismembered. (Yes, it was a hoax.)

The book is not really about that. It's about the people who believed her.

Dr John Howard is the attending physician, the man midwife, who struggles to reconcile what he sees with own eyes with what he know to be possible. Young apprentice Zachary is confused, but he respects his elders and generally keeps silent while he observes and grows into his courage. His father is a man of the cloth who is also called on to witness the abomination and can offer no insight into the strange workings of his God.

The Atlantic calls it a novel tailor-made for the scam era: why would anyone believe the unbelievable? What profound evidence would bring a person to disregard common sense? It's as if strength of one's conviction is directly proportional to the humiliation that would be suffered by revoking it. As Dr Howard surmises, perhaps the only difference between a hoax and a miracle is the number of people who believe in it. When we find we our not alone in our belief, no matter how peculiar, when it is shared, the belief is shored up.

But the heart, no, the guts of the story, behind the willingness to believe, or to hope, is humanity's depravity. What depths of perversion are people capable of devising?
"If I were to use a woman's mouth as a chamber pot — and you would be surprised how little money it takes to acquire this service, if one has agents in the proper quarters: the money I paid her was replaced in my coffers in the time it took me to finish pissing — then we would both be aware that the perversion was one that required human inventions, and so the woman would believe she was a lesser person than I am, but she would still consider herself a person. To do what she did was humiliating, without doubt, but it is not a thing an animal would do. Slaves, I imagine, must think the same way, when they see that their chains are forged by human hands, that their freedoms are circumscribed by human laws. They may view themselves as lesser people, which would please me, but they would still view themselves as people, which is not entirely satisfying. Such a transaction of humanity favors me, but it is not quite as favorable as I would wish: I want a better bargain, and I know I can drive one.

"What I want, Zachary, and what I have yet to see thus far, is to witness a human not merely humiliating himself but doing a thing that he knows only an animal would do, not a human. A final depth of debasement from which one could not return. Do you understand?"
Lord M expounds to Zachary on the "value" of his finances as a preamble to a freakshow's main attraction and the theory of the cat. The lords for some years have been conducting a social experiment, establishing a betting pool of sorts, to determine how much money would induce a man to eat a cat, alive. Without implements of human inventions, without preparation, such that the cat dies in the process of being eaten.

But only a human would draw up a trial such as this, and no animal would be motivated by money, so Lord M's net gain remains somewhat muddled. Zachary is horrified, no less by the entertainment than by his companions' enjoyment of it.

I find myself thinking a lot about this book long after turning the final page. (I am continually astounded to discover people's limits or lack thereof, by which I am learning to define my own boundaries, in matters of all nature, but especially those that are usually hidden and sexual — sex is after all a very human act.)
"Cities are complicated," said John. "They can be both the beautiful thing you believed them to be and the dark think you did not imagine they could be. The one does not obscure the other."

Zachary was silent.

"People, too," said John more quietly.
Palmer succeeds in making everything about this novel oppressive — from Mary's domestic circumstances and her cramped birthing chamber overflowing with medical professionals to the bustling markets and gin bars of London. At the end of it, one craves the fresh air of Enlightenment.

About Mary Toft
Atlas Obscura: Why Historians Are Reexamining the Case of the Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits
The Paris Review: An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits
OMG Facts: This Woman Made Doctors Believe She Gave Birth To Rabbits
US National Library of Medicine: The Doctors in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford

Chapter III: A Concerned Husband
Chapter IV: A Birth

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