November 24, 2016
Instead of sleeping, my new husband spends his nights out of doors, procuring animals for his next day at work: a basket of rabbits, a glass receiver of frogs, two pigeons, an owl, a dog, several tortoises, two cats. I never considered, but all of a sudden I notice, how Paris adores and despises its animals. In every home at least one pet, and courtyards are lousy with cows and hens, shit on stairs and stones. Paris loves animals more than it hates shit-covered stairs, and women would rather walk their dogs than their children. Not to mention shit is good business—sold to tanners by stooped ladies fighting with spoons over the biggest droppings. Meanwhile, the fanciest dog market at Saint-Germain-des-Prés jacks up prices, and ladies strut up and down Pont Neuf with their fluffy prizes. Regulating this surge in pets, a new law requires dogs to be muzzled, and a tax is announced—from one to ten francs depending on the breed. Now people just toss their animals in the river. So the first pound opens, rue de Pontoise, in the shadow of Notre Dame. Dogs are stuffed behind bars, then hanged or struck on the head. “Well bred, good looking” dogs are stored eight days, then sold back to the stalls, while “mongrels, or those without collars or breed,” live without food or water for three days, and are given to people like Claude who show up to take them. As with humans, “class is determined by breeding and partly by occupation.”
Night after night Claude departs into the streets, returning covered in filth, reporting how the city crawls with animals like meat with flies.
After Claude goes out one warm November night, I dare follow in my nightgown, and catch him stalking a pile of palettes near the corner, massed of gray but in the progress of ruin. I fumble, fall out of the doorway while trying to get a good look, and a pair of dogs disappear with a graceful leap. Claude curses me for being outside. Any normal doctor’s wife would be outlining the next day’s meals, listening to children read while embroidering, getting the servants for evening prayers, welcoming seamstresses, making lists of accounts, and hosting lavish entertainments. Some seasons have laundry, others canning and making liquor. Remove candlewax from tablecloths, freshen a chamber pot with angelica, shine the silver, change chair covers and drapery with the seasons. A normal doctor’s wife would have four or five dresses, updated regularly. Account books exact, kept in columns, tallied weekly. Numerous servants supply the impression of a lady at ease. Inside the house, the wife doesn’t think of the world outside—the politics, science, none of it. Disagreeable news makes a proper wife faint or swoon or stumble to a couch. She’s fixated on her family, the home. Winters she should gather socially. Mass daily, often twice; confession, offerings, daughters to school with the sœurs, where they learn penmanship, social deportment, arithmetic, but not novels because, well, too much individualism there. I remember the rule of thumb: self-expression limited to five minutes per day. “In other words, Fanny, a good wife wouldn’t look at her husband the way you do, or inquire about his doings. A good wife hears without listening, or listens without hearing, anyway, she is as deaf as anyone who wants to sleep.
Claude’s Red Notebook:
Sew the two ears of a rabbit together, then having fused them, cut one below in order to watch the reestablishment of sensibility, and see if the action of the sympathetic might then pass from one ear to another.
“Fanny!” they hiss, “Never think of yourself, except to renounce the thought!” But all my money goes out with Claude and doesn’t return, while the wife of the poor scientist is asked to live in a perpetual spiritual connection to his sacrifices. The chiffoniers are the bitter reminders of my respect ability, their ransom my costumes and housewares. I can’t help it—I was told to reject my story, so now his story is all I can think about. Everything he talks about is livers and kidneys, blood and nerves, and there is no pew at the church in my name, so I think about nerves and livers. This marriage is hardly between people, but between me and his big idea. A fashionable martyr minces her barbed crown hand to hand, while studying the pains in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Here’s Saint Peter on his anonymous cross. Saint Lawrence toasted on a spit. Adalbert chained to a post and poisoned with arrows. Waldenses plowed off a cliff. And cursed Saint Stephen, his streets of blood. People laugh, but even the most self-denying martyr stands straight in the crowd’s derision—rejecting comfort and calm for the fray. I look Claude straight in the eye and then slowly return to our apartment. Yet for this mouthful of fire, martyrs soak their words in humble brine. From here, though, I scan the embers as they strive toward flame, and resist the snickering—for all of us locked in this situation forever, slack as marionettes dropped in a box. “Kids should not be cooked in their mother’s milk.” Yes, but, “Do not yoke together the ox and the ass”—right?
Would it have been so hard to give me my own tomb? I finally got that personality I was warned against, and it doomed me just like they said.
When I confront him, Claude says that pain exists only in conscious creatures—lacking thought, there is no suffering. Animals, Negresses, Jewesses, are all said to have less of it. One thing I know, even in sleep, distress and pain bring lost parts back, demanding to be experienced as a part, rather than the ‘it’ of ‘get it out of me’! Claude’s Red Notebook: “To gain an idea of the functions that are called organic, one can say that these are those which persist when the individual sleeps. Those that have ceased are the functions relating to the outside.” But every scream makes night impossible: barricades quoting barricades, a mess of gestures; turn over a carriage, add some stones, roll up a cannon and stand ready. Is that a man or an animal? Corpses make effective props. In the Tuileries, they shout, “The anger of the people is the lesson of Kings!”
In the bookstalls, amid the mayhem, literary ‘physiologies’ are advertised to describe ‘things as they are,’ meaning: ‘very ugly, without softening or embellishing.’ It’s popular now to follow Feydeau and call stories ‘studies,’ with their freshly passions and violent subjects, dragging all that once was hidden off-stage, the obscene, now front and center. “The ideal is lacking in the naturalist,” says Hippolyte Taine—who studied at the Medical School and is fast becoming the Great Philosopher of the realist movement—“he is as eager to dissect a doorkeeper as a minister of state.” Monseigneur says that a wretched fate can be unmade by gaining a wider view, a longer perspective, an infinity in a moment which conquers tragedy through God’s eyes. But the moment one is in pain, the soul cleaves to its mortal body and nothing else, and the mind struggles, unable to free itself to look even a few feet around. Up and still awake, it doesn’t take me long to stand at the window and track where Claude goes. About Balzac, Taine writes: “With such a litter of tools and variety of repulsive preparations that when he emerges from his cellar and comes back to the light, he retains the smell of the laboratory in which he has been buried. He is armed with brutality and calculation; his roughness frees him from fear of shocking people. In this capacity he copies the real, he likes the monstrous on a large scale; he depicts baseness and force better than other things.”
I can’t tell if it’s for the sake of the animals, or for the reputation of Paris, but after so many complaints, the city announces the Grammont Law against abuse of domestic animals—though it doesn’t address vivisection, and pertains only to abuses witnessed in the streets. “The Grammont Law is formal in this regard and declares that only cruelty committed publicly is punishable. This means that when the offense is committed in a private residence or its outbuildings, even if multiple people are present, this event, however reprehensible it may seem…is not legally punishable.” With a member card to the Animal Protection Society (subscription at 10FF/year) someone can call the police if they see an infraction in a public place. Covered under the law:
—overworking or overloading an animal
—withholding food, air, light, or movement
—brutal methods for getting a fallen animal to its feet, without taking the simple measure of unburdening it from its charge
—any action to get from the animal efforts that are clearly beyond its strength
—heaping up or hanging any animal (calves, sheep, chickens and others intended for market) either in the carriages or in the slaughterhouses, or markets
—all games that could cause mutilation or death to an animal
Which animals does the law protect? “All animals born, living, growing, nourished, or reproducing under man’s roof and in his care… horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, rabbits, pigeons, chickens…” How will the accused be punished? “Will be punished by a fine of five to fifteen francs, and up to five days in prison… Prison will always apply to recidivists.”
Tonight the open window reveals a city alive with noise, as sound by sound I catalogue hundreds of actions in progress. Claude goes out to make his quota. I don’t know what mechanism or force upends my paralysis, but I rise and dress, stomp down behind my husband, and there in the courtyard I meet his eye, just as his boys are handing a pile of puppies back and forth. Ensues between us a new species of ferocious moment. I am unbound like a fury, all hands grabbing and kicking at knees: I refuse to allow even one puppy out of my arms, though they’re struggling and upside-down. I’m screaming bloody murder until Claude nods to one man and they depart into the night. I take the pups upstairs and pack them safely. I go to the church parish where I know the woman who cleans, and I hand them to her, with a promise to help find them homes the next day.
Denis Diderot: “Woman carries within her an organ subject to terrible spasms; it dominates her, and arouses fierce phantasms of all kinds in her imagination…Nothing is nearer to her than ecstasy, vision, prophecy, revelations, fiery poetry, and hystericism . . . It was a woman who walked out into the streets of Alexandria with bare feet, her hair unkempt, a torch in one hand and an ewer in the other, proclaiming ‘I want to burn the heavens with a torch, and extinguish hell with this water, so that man may love God for his sake alone!’”
Morning, exhausted, I pick through life’s messy top layer—up close, a view is rough; outside, workers yell for beams falling, stone hoisted; the complete collapse of plaster. I try to clean the dust and soot from the house-surfaces, organize the pantry. Our little bishon follows me from room to room, and the girls follow him. Noise can’t quiet itself; it must stand higher and higher on its own shoulders. I’m so tired I can’t start a new fire. The wood is cold, wet, indifferent, heavy, and unreasonable. Nothing happens even if I feed in a hundred papers. Nothing but smoke, acrid and nauseating. My throat and nose burn, but nothing else.
Claude-Henri, our cherished boy, dies at 15 months. Never for one moment did he seem to think his life a curse; he’d smile weakly and play with small toys in his hands as though they were all the blessings in the world. Unimaginable pain when I picture his face, his big eyes and sweet smell, eyebrows raised as he drank his cup on my lap, gazing at my worry with something almost like curiosity.
Claude’s red notebook:
How can one not believe in God, for I have knowledge, and this knowledge can not come from matter because matter does not know itself, otherwise, it would become its own master (Bienayme).
Where does materialism lead? To absurdity.
A forest, it is a mass of cells. This dryad, hamadryad, it is a cell. Thus, certainty of God, through mind, faith and reason. Uncertainty, through the senses, which prevents determinism.
Such is the state of man.
Make these ideas bear fruit.
I can see Claude suffers the boy’s death, even as he rejects the stares of his daughters. I’m not as horrible to look at as they say, but in a mirror I see a sour face that shrill complaints deplete of joy. Soon, time spent at home feels aberrant and artificial, and Claude manages to sneak in and out with as little sense of belonging as possible; avoids even pretending to deal with me. “If you’d taken care of our sons like you care for your dogs, our little boys wouldn’t be dead.”
THALIA FIELD is a professor of Literary Arts at Brown University. Experimental Animals is her sixth book. She has published three collections with New Directions: Point and Line (2000), Incarnate: Story Material (2004), and Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010). Her performance novel, Ululu (Clown Shrapnel), was published with Coffee House Press, and she has two collaborations with French author Abigail Lang: A Prank of Georges (Essay Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Leave to Remain. Before writing books, Thalia worked in theaters in Paris, Berlin, and New York.
Excerpted from Experimental Animals (A Reality Fiction) by Thalia Field. Copyright © 2016 by Thalia Field. Published by permission of Solid Objects. All rights reserved.