Mary Toft

Or, The Rabbit Queen

By Dexter Palmer

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Well, holy shit.

Books surprise me all the time, for good and for ill. However, it rarely takes me half a book’s length to notice how good it is – I’m usually (not always) quicker on the uptake than that.

In my defense, books don’t usually want to hide their own goodness from you. It’s risky, after all: most people are willing to put a bad book down and walk away. Most books want to grab you immediately with their quality and keep a throttle-hold on you until the end, even past the end: for the exact length of time it takes for you to buy copies of them for everyone you know for Christmas.

So discretion turns out to be a rare quality in a book. It does happen, though, that a book comes along that has the skill to hide itself from you, distracting you so completely with scenery or plot that you fail to notice that it is excellent until it’s too late.

***

Mary Toft was a real person, a Surrey woman who, in 1726, orchestrated a hoax in which she convinced several reputable surgeons that she was giving birth to rabbits. Dexter Palmer has written a novel about this true story, told mainly from the point of view of Zachary, the fourteen-year-old apprentice of John Howard, the local surgeon who first encounters Mary.

I think that part of the reason that it took me so long to figure out that ‘Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen‘ is magnificent is that it is, deliberately and aggressively, revolting. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll spare you the nasty shock I received, as an example: I bet you assumed, when I wrote that Mary Toft was “giving birth to rabbits”, that the rabbits where alive. I bet you assumed that they were intact.

I did, much to my regret. Mary’s rabbits are not alive: in order to effect the hoax, the rabbits had to be killed, cut into pieces, and inserted into Mary’s womb, whence they were extracted by credulous surgeons. It is absolutely disgusting, and the first time John Howard birthed a rabbit’s head and a string of intestine from Mary Toft, I was knocked flat on my ass: literary skill was the furthest thing from my mind.

I was intended to be, I bet. Dexter Palmer is clever, and he is making a point. ‘Mary Toft‘ is a novel about truth and belief, about the difference between them, about why we believe the things that we believe. About why we are so persuaded by the evidence of our eyes, and what it is, exactly, our eyes find persuasive.

There aren’t many novels written about medical anomalies, and for reasons which, I think, are sound: they are difficult to read about, if you live in an age in which they are scarce. But they have not always been scarce, they are part of our common humanity, and Dexter Palmer requires that we see them because, if we can’t see them, we will not understand the world in which Mary Toft lived, we won’t understand why she did what she did, or how she was able to get away with it.

The medical consensus in the society into which Mary is born is that birth defects are the fault of mothers: impurities in their thoughts, sins which lie on their consciences, act to turn the children in their wombs from the path of normal development. If a mother spends her pregnancy thinking unwomanly thoughts, she risks the health of her child.

Dexter Palmer is writing about a world in which the war between science and religion is much younger than it is in ours. Medical anomalies, illnesses which cause malformations in the human form, are the sites of the most pitched battles of these wars. Why would an omniscient God allow babies to be born twisted, sick, in pain?

The answer is, of course, sin: God visits illness on those who deserve it. If you are sick, if you are born with an illness, if you develop one over the course of your life, then you must have deserved it. Why would God allow illness to strike you unless you did something wrong? The wretched, those in pain, suffer because they should, and if you are lucky, healthy, rich, you must therefore be good.

It’s important to understand this mindset because, without understanding it, it will be difficult to understand the cruelty with which the inhabitants of this world treat each other:

“Lord M- winked. “Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say that he is better than an animal because he walks on two legs, and sings, and invents money…But if I am very, very rich, and you are not so rich: well, then I,” Lord M- said, his hand on his heart, “can take some of yours…This is the last thing that money is good for, once you have as much as I do – to make myself more human, which regrettably but necessarily entails making you less human, by contrast.” (p. 235)

***

I didn’t notice how good ‘Mary Toft‘ was until about half of the way through.

I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. People often talk about books getting a slow start, or taking a while to get going: this is emphatically not what happened with ‘Mary Toft‘.

What happened is, essentially, shock-and-awe. Dexter Palmer spends the first hundred pages of the novel knocking you around with grotesqueries, using the brutality of 18th century medicine to soften you up. By the time Palmer is ready to teach you something, you’ve forgotten that you’re reading the sort of the novel that might offer a moral lesson – you’re too busy trying NOT to imagine what it would be like to shove bits of a rabbit up your own vagina.

Which means that the moral lesson, which is lovely and brutal at the same time, has landed on you before you know it was launched.

Dexter Palmer

I suspect that this surprise-attack quality is exactly why a book would trouble to downplay its literary quality. Readers are like anyone else: they don’t like being preached at. When they see a lecture coming, they brace, ready their eyes for rolling. Those lectures are held at a critical distance

But when you are shattered and confused, transfixed by a woman pulling rabbit skulls out of her cooch, you are permeable; your critical faculties are shot all to hell.

Which is Palmer’s point: when your senses are overwhelmed, you are easier to trick. When you are struggling to understand something impossible, you are credulous, and vulnerable to someone with an agenda: to a sham religion, to a medical quack, or to a novelist who is trying to teach you about human kindness.

I lovedMary Toft‘. The writing is lovely, not in an ostentatious, “Look Ma I Got My MFA” prose-y kind of way – it is merely simple, effective, and graceful. It is surprising, and clever, and sad, and humane, and at times even funny. And, as an added bonus, it’s about the weirdest novelistic subject I’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to take a long time for some of the images contained in this book to shake out of my imagination. But I think it’s OK to have them there – I think they’re teaching me something.

The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.