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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Story that Explains the Mad Scientist Trope: "The Doctor's Heroism" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

First appeared in Contes Cruels. Reprinted by Robert K. Brunner and Stuart David Schiff (also in 75 World Masterpieces).

The point of the mad-scientist trope has been lost. Some readers reject it as ridiculous. But it wasn't that long ago that scientists had a different frame of mind (see Nazi human experimentation and Tuskegee experiment): That scientific knowledge trumped the individual human.

Now we have medical research boards that check that human subjects are ethically treated. But the question remains: Are there areas where we still treat the individual human as unimportant, for whatever grandiose reason--for social, political, financial gain?

Of the mad-scientist tales I've read, this seems the quintessential work of its type. Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne took on the trope memorably, but this one confronts the trope head-on, speaking more directly than others before it.

It's a simple story, so read it. I'm going to reveal "spoilers."

Dr. Hallidonhill is treating several patients for consumption. He tells one patient, who looks terminal, that the patient won't live and the doctor won't do anything.
"What do you think I am--a coroner?"
Apparently, bedside manner had yet to be invented. But the good doctor has a thought, possibly due to the valet:
"Are you rich?"
As a matter of fact...

So the doctor reveals a supposed cure he heard about but doesn't believe in: Go to Nice and only eat watercress for six months, prepared in multiple ways.

Spoilers: When the man returns--healthy as an ox--the doctor doesn't recognize the man. The man wants to honor the doctor. But the doctor shoots him in order to do an autopsy: What made this formerly sick man survive? When the doctor is about to go before the British Assizes, the narrator and some unnamed group find on behalf of the doctor:
"[T]he exclusive love of the Humanity of the Future without any regard for the individual of the Present is, in our time, the one sole motive that ought to justify the acquittal under any circumstances of the magnanimous Extremists of science."
Now I've suggested one interpretation above that goes against reading this statement as straight. I suspect some readers in the past agreed with this last statement, or else some experiments now regarded as criminal would not have taken place.

Essentially, this is a battle between the two Star Trek themes: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." (Star Trek II when Spock sacrifices his own life to save the Enterprise.) vs. "The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many." (Star Trek III when the crew put their lives and careers in danger to save Spock.).

The difference, though, is that one man offered his life as a sacrifice where those in experiments did not. Moreover, the sacrifice in "The Doctor's Heroism" was likely pointless. Better to study watercress and its components than the man. You could say, "Look at all these people dying of consumption." If you had a relative or relatives dead due to consumption, you might agree with the story's last paragraph.

A few phrases ought to clue us in, however:

  1. "exclusive love of the Humanity of the Future" -- Great, you care about the future. When will the future arrive? Why exclusive?
  2. "without any regard for the individual of the Present" -- When will we care for those around us? How can one care about Humanity without caring for the individuals that compose it?
  3. "under any circumstances" -- Any? Is anyone willing to accept every circumstance brought under the banner of saving the future?
  4. "the magnanimous Extremists" -- the author is complimenting then slapping (or at least sugar coating a bitter pill). Magnanimous defined: "very generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself." (Merriam Webster). Monetarily, the victim may be more powerful, but the doctor is medicinally in the position of power here. In no sense is the doctor generous or forgiving to his patient whom the doctor doomed to die without hope. You could say that the doctor was generous toward the future, but we aren't given any proofs that the doctor actually found anything worthwhile.
Incidentally, the doctor's name may refer to this famous battle where the Scotsmen were defeated in an impossible-to-win battle, Halidon Hill. The Scots had to endure arrows as they crossed a swamp and climb up a hill to attack the Brits.

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