From the Reading Room - Testament of a Vivisector. Asha Hornsby.

Asha Hornsby is a PhD candidate at University College London. I was intrigued by the title of the somewhat humble looking volume she was reading – Testament of a Vivisector by John Davidson, from the Sterling Library. I asked her how she discovered the book and why was she reading it.

'I stumbled upon John Davidson’s poem The Testament of a Vivisector (1901) when perusing the Senate House archives and manuscripts. My interests cluster around Victorian poetry and fiction, critical animal studies, literary ecology, protest movements, and the history of British medical science and my thesis examines the significance of authors, poets, playwrights and their work in the Victorian Vivisection Debates (c.1870-1910). Knowing practically nothing about this Scottish poet I suspected that Davidson would, like Robert Browning, Ouida, Willkie Collins, and Thomas Hardy before him, express sympathy with the anti-vivisection agitation through his work and thus support the special affinity which had developed between literary-labour and animal activism. This, I was to find out, was not the case.

The Testament of a Vivisector is one of a series which includes The Testament of a Man Forbid (1901), The Testament of an Empire Builder (1902), and The Testament of John Davidson (1908). These Testaments are philosophical and rhetorical exercises as much as poetry; they express Davidson’s atheism, interest in Nietzscheism, and his commitment to materialism. Unsurprisingly, given his unorthodox beliefs, Davidson’s poem is hardly typical of anti-vivisection literature which tended to use Christian teaching and traditional middle-class Victorian values as a foundation from which to criticise live-animal experimentation and its practitioners. In fact, the Scottish poet prefaces his Testament by insisting that the work ‘will hardly recommend itself to Vivisector or Anti-Vivisector; and the new statement of Materialism which it contains is likely to offend both the religious and the irreligious mind’. He instead addresses his text to readers ‘who are willing to place all ideas in the crucible, and who are not afraid to fathom what is subconscious in themselves and others’.

Despite this warning, I was struck by the poem’s unnerving and unabashedly controversial subject matter and style. Davidson saturates the blank verse with the relentless sneer of the vivisector who begins his address by disparaging religious believers, ‘vendor[s] of poem or philosopheme’, and all who dabble in the ‘affairs of men’. No such man, he arrogantly claims, is qualified to assess his (or indeed his work’s) worth. This is the sole task of a true materialist like himself, consumed by the ‘zest of inquisition’ and who ‘knows the savour of forbidden fruit’,

Who never begs that truth should benefit,

Or be the least innoxious, but frequents

The labyrinthine fires of solitude

Wherein the thinker, parched and charred, outlives

Millenniums in a moment; who reveres

Himself, and with superb despite                                

Maltreats the loving-kindnesses of men,

Divine ideas and abstractions fond –

He, he alone may measure and endure

My headstrong passion and austerity.

“To love and understand?” The prattlement

Of amorists, begetters, family folk…

Although the vivisector initially ‘Began to hew the living flesh / ... to seek…/ The mitigation of disease’, he quickly ‘turn[s] to Matter lustfully / With masculine intent’. He purchases and slowly vivisects a knackered horse to make the ‘faithful, dying, loathsome drudge, / One diapason of intensest pain, / Sublime and terrible in martyrdom’. Relishing his blasphemous position as ‘Lord of the riddle of the Universe’ and in the throes of euphoric sadism he confesses,

The whip’s-man felt no keener ecstasy

When a fair harlot at the cart’s-tail shrieked,

And rags of flesh with blood-soaked tawdry lace

Girdled her shuddering loins…         

The catalogue of agonies perpetrated by the vivisector, who has now given over to ‘study pain – pain only’, is so remorselessly grotesque that critics are unsure whether there is any discernible ‘message’ to the poem. Davidson’s vivisector is an exact reproduction of the caricatured experimental physiologist so lambasted by the anti-vivisection press throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century; he revels in causing pain, is never motivated by a humanitarian desire to reduce disease, works in rapt isolation and forsakes social or familial duties since his wife and daughters fled from him, and is also an atheist who flouts social norms and seems prone to criminality and violence. A catalogue of these tropes would typically be followed by condemnation, and in some senses Davidson (and his vivisector) invite – even provoke – such a judgement from the reader.

However, this reading doesn’t square with Davidson’s personal philosophy expressed most succinctly in the lines: ‘Men are the universe become conscious; the simplest man should consider himself too great to be called after any name.’ Perhaps the vivisector’s demonstration of the will to power as knowledge is the ultimate manifestation of Davidson’s faith in the authority of each individual and his conviction that the strongest should rule. Can a reader be expected to sympathise with such a character? Are we supposed to admire the grandeur of heroic individuals who defy convention? There is certainly exceedingly little to mitigate the vivisector’s shameless inhumanity and monomaniacal destruction of the animals and humans around him. One can only be expected, perhaps, to consider his deeply lonely life devoid of the comforts of family, religion, or the arts, his tortured search for meaning in matter, and his own profound pain which vibrates with that of the world’s:

All, all is Matter, Pain? I am one ache –

But never when I work; there Matter wins!

And I believe that they who delve the soil,

Who reap the grain, who dig and smelt the ore,

The girl who plucks a rose, the sweetest voice

That thrills the air with sound, give Matter pain:

Think you the sun is happy in his flames,

Or that the cooling earth no anguish feels

Nor quails from her contraction? Rather say,

The systems, constellations, galaxies

That strew the ethereal waste are whirling there

In agony unutterable. Pain?

It may be Matter in itself is pain,

Sweetened in sexual love that so mankind,

The medium of Matter’s consciousness,

May never cease to know – the stolid bent

Of Matter, the infinite vanity

Of the Universe, bring evermore

Self-knowledge.         

Texts like Davidson’s The Testament of a Vivisector complicate my research and prompt me to reconsider the multitude of personal and contextual factors which inform a writer’s work and world-view. It is sometimes easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when examining anti-vivisection fiction and propaganda, since they share many recurring tropes and arguments. Davidson’s distinctly modern poem rejects this earlier context. Nevertheless, his imaginative response to vivisection, pain, and the meaning of science, is informed by literary naturalism and certain fin-de-siècle anxieties which themselves emerged against the backdrop of earlier antivivisection campaigning.

Davidson intended to produce a long series of Testaments which would include ‘The Harlot’, ‘The Artist’, ‘The Christian’, ‘The Criminal’ ‘The Mendicant’, ‘The Evolutionist’, ‘The Proletarian’ and ‘The Deliverer’. However, the public seemed to have little appetite for the volumes and few were willing to part with the sixpence necessary to purchase a copy. In 1906 Davidson was awarded a civil list pension of one hundred pounds per year, but continued to struggle with financial problems and depression. On 23rd March 1909 Davidson drank some whisky and smoked a cigar before throwing himself off the cliffs at Penzance. In his last text, The Testament of John Davidson, completed a year prior, he had gestured towards his fate:

 

‘None should outlive his power…Who kills

Himself subdues the conqueror of kings;

Exempt from death is he who takes his life;

My time has come.

 

From the Reading Room is a series edited by Charles Harrowell.

Blog post details