Roger du Plessis gives Antoine Arnaud the What-For: A Vivisection Anecdote meets its match

450px-Hotel_de_ville_paris145During November and early December I briefly attained Jeffrey- or Eileen-like levels of speaking engagements. First the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then, the following week, at Ann Arbor, and then, finally, at a GW MEMSI symposium on my How to Make a Human. Thanks, eternal thanks, to Rob Barrett, Charlie Wright, the Animal Studies Interdisciplinary Workshop at the University of Michigan, and, of course, Jeffrey and the other symposium participants: Peggy McCracken, Tobias Menely, and Julian Yates.

Over the few weeks, as I try to finish both my semester AND preparations for next year’s relocation to Paris, I hope to share portions of my (colon-heavy) talks and seminars: “Yvain’s Herdsman, A Lion, and Several Dead Dogs: Rules for Being Human, and Some Ways Out”; “Unmaking Humans: Several Medieval Nonhumanisms”; and “Thanks Unending: Dindimus with the World.”

An excerpt to start:

Works on animal rights very often uses the following description of later 17th-century French scientists of the school of Descartes, who:

administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals upon boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation.

I don’t know who first ran across this passage (an original), but this very translation appears in more than 300 works, per Google books; if we imagine other translations–though perhaps we shouldn’t be so generous–the actual account of the anecdote’s retelling probably number much, much higher.

So far as I know, however, virtually no one in animal rights (see the link for the one example I’ve turned up, unscientifically, through Google Books) cites the following story, also about Antoine Arnaud, le grand, and also, like the other, from the Memoirs of Nicolas Fontaine:

Mais puis-je oublier le plaisant entretien, où ce bon Seigneur ferma la bouche à M. Arnaud, tout savant qu’il étoit? On parloit de la philosophie de M. Descartes, qui étoit alors l’entre[c]ien de toutes les compagnies. M. Arnaud qui avoit un esprit universal & qui étoit entré dans le sistême de Descartes sur les bêtes, soutenoit que ce n’étoient que des horloges, et que quand elles crioient ce n’étoit qu’une roue d’horloge qui faisoit du bruit. M. de Liancourt lui dit: ‘J’ai là bas deux chiens qui tournent la broche chacun leur jour. L’un s’en trouvant embarasse se cacha lorsqu’on l’alloit prendre, et on eut recours à son camarade pour tourner au lieu de lui. Le camarade cria, et fit signe de sa queue qu’on le suivît. Il alla dénicher l’autre dans le grenier et le houspilla. Sont-ce là des horloges?” dit-il, à M. Arnaud qui trouva cela si plaisant, qu’il ne put faire autre chose que d’en rire.

But can I forget the pleasant conversation when this good lord closed the mouth of Monsieur Arnaud, as sophicated as he was? They were speaking of Descartes’ philosophy, who was then the subject of everyone’s conversation. Monsieur Arnaud, a true renaissance man, had joined with Descartes’ system on the question of animals, holding that they were nothing more than clocks, and that when they cried out, it was nothing more than clockwork making noise. Monseiur de Liancourt [Duke Roger du Plessis] said to him, “Down there [in the kitchen] I have two dogs who daily alternate turning a spit. One of the dogs constrained to do this hid himself when they where going to put him to it, and he had recourse to his comrade [another dog] to turn the spit in his place. The comrade cried out and signalled with its tail that he should be followed. He turned up the other in the attic and reprimanded him fiercely. Are these clocks?” he said, which Monsieur Arnaud found so pleasant than he could do nothing else but laugh at it.

I’ll just note that even here, under Descartes, human confidence could go awry: I’ll leave it to you to decide how we should take Arnauld’s laughter, whether he’s tickled or nervous or unsure about what to think.

The ironies are almost too obvious to describe: though the Duke kept his dogs as machines, he knew them as having a sense of justice; though Arnaud beat and crucified his dogs, though he used them to study life itself—or to liberate “life,” whatever that is, from the body—he considered them, at best, puzzles to be solved.

[feel free to intervene on this translation, which is, admittedly, clumsy (and I hope at worst clumsy). There is, by the way, a recent edition (Champion, 2001) of the Fontaine, which I’ve been unable to consult]