At last, following months of tantalizing (that word needs a noun aside from the proper name), this post is about the fourth non-human-born protagonist in The Island of Doctor Moreau, the Leopard Man. The previous posts of this kind are All too human, The Other, and Why matters.
Everyone familiar in passing with the story knows the Beast Folk are subject to the Law, their religion. My book examines the religious activity of the Beast Folk in extreme detail, especially in that they have invented the Law, as opposed to having it forced upon them in an uncomprehending fashion, which is how the movies always show it. Incidentally the Leopard Man himself is very different across the movie versions, but (i) you knew that and (ii) more importantly, you knew I’d say it. Moving on.
My general reading of the novel is that Moreau is correct in bemoaning his failure to make a rational man, but completely misses the fact that he has succeeded in making people. Given the textual rather than the cinematic or pop culture versions of the Law, I think the story shows this most clearly in the Beast People’s experience of religion, at a number of different levels.
I’ll drop the big one first: I don’t care a bit about “belief” and I think it’s a total red herring. I dismiss the notions that religious activity has some core or central nugget of distinctive thinking in it, that it is distinctly different from other social activity, that it shows any recognizable signature regarding effects, and that “religion” is even a single thing.
Let’s do some dissection about that latter point. Consider these things:
- Religiosity – the perceived experience of contact with meaning and purpose, often couched in supernatural imagery
- Observance – ritualized practices
- Community – overwhelmingly the context for observance, although not necessary strictly from definition
- Institution – societal organization with income, political presence, and punitive and educational power
- Doctrine – institutional context permits standard, reinforced interpretation of practices, and of the stories accompanying them
- Larger culture – body of identity and custom with direct and indirect influences from the region’s (or some region’s) institutional and community history
The standard view is that religiosity provides a core world-view, that values within and among one’s community reflect and express those world-view, that observance affirms this exact experience among the community, and that the institution simply reflect precisely what everyone believes. You can send the causality either way – completely sincere invention and support of institutions based on core beliefs, or community-wide beliefs instilled by institutional indoctrination. But either way you go with that, the linear causality among these nested sets is taken as a given. This standard view is also core to the current fashions in New Atheism, which rely on a basic insanity interpretation of religiosity and thus consider all the rest tainted as they are presumed to be caused by it.
I think this standard view is inane. It seems to me blatantly obvious that these things are independent of one another. It also strikes me that in practice, the term belief is not referring to religiosity at all, but instead, in practice, it is accounted for avowing commitment toward some one or combination of the others.
You will also notice, I hope, that the supernatural component is quite flexible. Nationalism in its modern form is a religion. “America” in particular is an ultra-church, whose reach is considerably farther than notions of border or official sovereignty, and whose presence in these terms is instantly observable in education, recreation, and policy-making. I regard the relationship between Washington D.C and the various socio-political regions of North America as very similar to that between the medieval Roman Catholic Church and much of Europe, including its penchant for trade control and for mobilizing Crusades.
Back to the novel, in which the Leopard Man has broken a component of the Law, is publicly shamed, and flees from public view in what appears to be combined humiliation, terror, and rebellion – I note especially that although he knocks Moreau down, he does not attack him, before escaping the scene. Prendick joins the chase for him, but quickly switches sympathy as he realizes the torment that awaits the fugitive in the laboratory, and as he recognizes a wide variety of very familiar human attitudes among the Beast Folk participating in the chase. Then he is the first to come upon the Leopard Man who has been run to ground, in hiding:
It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact – but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.
Prendick is a Protestant Temperance supporter, committed to late-19th century Progressivism in full. Consider that the Leopard Man knows without doubt that he is now going to Hell. When the latter throws the former a single beseeching look, the communication between them is stark and unmistakable: Please don’t let them take me.
No one can say what the Leopard Man believes in the strict religiosity sense, or as modern parlance has it, “really believes.” That he’s at least stressed about having broken the Law is evident, retrospectively considering his behavior toward Prendick earlier. That he’s terrified of physical torture is clear too. But how much of a sinner is he? Internally, that’s unknowable. But note my phrasing in the above paragraph: he doesn’t believe he’s going to Hell, he knows it.
What’s also evident is how much the Beast Folk community cares about and relishes the uncovering of a sinner. Their behavior, especially among the vocally devout (the Ape-Man, the Vixen-Bear), reeks of guilty consciences eager to abuse a scapegoat. It’s also evident that Moreau has co-opted the Beast Folks’ home-grown Law, i.e., community, into a self-serving institutional Law in which avoiding punishment becomes the same as community solidarity. If you don’t blink, you’ll spot his quick thinking in directing the stress and uncertainty arising from the Leopard Man’s brief defiance into fervor to catch him, instead of, for instance, realizing that their divine figurehead is no such thing. And finally, spot that one significant Beast Man has figured this out already and handily hides his lack of community-doctrinal commitment in a show of piety in catching the outed sinner.
Everything about this and related scenes demonstrate that the Beast Folk are not incomprehending brutes bullied and chivvied into “acting”like a religion,” but people who experience these different components we call religion exactly as, well, as people do.
My favorite bit actually precedes the violent and dramatic elements of this scene – it’s when they’re all gathering at Moreau’s call, as the arrivals grovel and throw dirt on themselves before him … and glare at the late-comers for making them do this for so long. How much more familiar display of the subtleties of pious observance do you need?
There are tons more details and plot events to talk about, including how the Beast Folk undergo a Judaism-to-Christianity shift at least in the terms of the mainstream 1890s interpretation. Here, my opening point for what will almost certainly be a string of religion-y posts, is that we’re talking about a social activity with completely mundane features and effects, and that the supernatural element is of little interest, and distracts the discussion from doctrine as a weapon for the wielders of institutional power.
Links: Gorman Beauchamp’s The Island of Doctor Moreau as Theological Grotesque
Next: What are little species made of?