Thursday, November 30, 2017

island of lost souls

I’d always considered Island of Lost Souls a movie about human psychology—an allegory for the concept of the beast within. The way in which Dr. Moreau raises his animal subjects toward the human level constitutes not only an acceleration of evolution, as he claims. It also represents, analogically, a civilizing process occurring within the psyche that reminds one of the late Freud, with Moreau as the superego violently taming the id. By showing us Moreau’s failure and ultimate destruction, the movie argues that we humans can never extinguish our animal nature. Just when we think we have driven out the beast, “the stubborn animal flesh” resurfaces, and it is back to the “house of pain” for more treatment.

Recently I have started to see in the film a second allegory, one that addresses the psychology of power, specifically from the perspective of the colonizer. Looked at this way, Moreau is once again a civilizing influence, the colonial power from across the seas come to bestow the wonders of the Western world upon hapless, undeserving natives—all the better to exploit them, of course. The animals on which he experiments are like the colonizer’s raw material: the human beings who in Western eyes are little more than dogs, and only half as useful, until lifted up an evolutionary rung or two. These wretched of the earth have no other purpose than to serve the cause of modernity—in the movie, this means evolutionary science—and Moreau rules them as a god, using violence on the one hand—the whip and the laboratory—and a civilizing legal framework on the other. These forces of violence and law unite in the well-known scene at the natives’ village when Moreau, standing on the cliff above the circle of huts, cracks his whip and leads the famous recitation: “What is the law?” “Not to walk on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?” “What is the law?” “Not to spill blood. That is the law.” It’s the tightrope walk of colonial power, with Moreau performing the balancing act. The colonized must forever be kept, in the words of Sartre, at “the level of a superior ape in order to justify the colonist’s treatment of them.” Let them rise above or sink below this level, and one can expect only trouble.

Of course trouble does come to Moreau, when the half-human creatures that he has brought into being return violence for violence and kill him in his laboratory. Where do his creations find the ethical justification to break the bonds of the law and take revenge on their oppressor? For it is the genius of the movie that they do not act in haste or irrationally. Far from being the “superior apes” that the colonist’s mind must make of them, they display in this moment a greater humanity than the civilized doctor could ever imagine of them, and a greater sense of justice than he could ever aspire to himself. Having internalized the law, having taken for granted its transcendence and universality, they move on the compound only after a reasoned debate in which two points are established with evidence: first, Moreau has broken his own law by commissioning murder, the spilling of blood; second, the death of the murdered ship’s captain shows that humans, and therefore Moreau, can die. With hypocrisy as the charge, and the mortality of the god-like ruler established, the inhabitants of the island unleash their fury in a manner which, though undoubtedly cruel, fits neatly within the outlines of Biblical, eye-for-an-eye-style justice. They ignore Moreau’s violent entreaties for calm, overrun his compound, break into his surgical instruments, and lay him out on the vivisector’s table. Orwell told us a long time ago what the figure of power most deeply fears: being found out as something less than what he has always pretended to be. The unmasked actor with a gun on his belt is impotent nevertheless. Power is always in some manner a ruse.

Over the sixty-two years since the end of World War II, the United States has fallen from cultural and economic colonizer of much of the world’s population, to the status of a Moreau just before his demise: a puffed-up actor on the edge of a cliff, trying desperately to hold onto our diminishing status, wielding the instruments of war in a circus-sideshow of force, preaching a law that the people of the earth know very well we neither take seriously nor would ever apply to ourselves. The veneer is wearing thin, and good riddance to it. Though Moreau never succumbs to the least pangs of conscience, his assistant, Montgomery, finally does stand against the obscenity of power and intervenes to save Moreau’s most civilized creation, Lota, from another session in the house of pain. But one can’t help thinking that it’s too late for Montgomery, this dutiful assistant of the Western project. It’s not Moreau’s creatures who have lost their souls.