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Hunting for Humanity

The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron

by Roger Shattuck
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 220 pp., $10.95

Nearly two centuries have passed since the wild boy known as Victor was captured in Aveyron, France, and trotted around Paris on a leash as a specimen of natural man. Although he was the talk of the town for a few months in 1800, he had been forgotten by the time he died, half-tame and mute, in 1828. Why does he still haunt our consciousness? Why in the last few years has he aroused such interest among psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, linguists, literary scholars, educators, and artists?

Roger Shattuck’s book suggests an answer to those questions, although it has little new to say about Victor himself. According to Shattuck, the wild boy personified the “forbidden experiment” that has hovered over all speculation about human nature. If a child could be cut off from family, language, and all exchange with other human beings, what sort of creature would he be? Does a bedrock humanity exist beyond culture? And how would it develop, if one could transfer it from the state of nature to society? Victor seemed to stride straight out of the presocial world imagined by Hobbes and Rousseau into the postrevolutionary world constructed by Bonaparte.

Bonapartist France reacted in predictable ways. Peasants gathered around their catch in the village of Saint-Sernin, gaping and poking and spreading wild stories of how he had scampered through the trees like a squirrel. Philosophers posed questions. Would the boy have a concept of property as Locke had maintained? Would his mind come to life slowly in the manner described by Condillac? Would his social affections ripen from the sentiment of pity predicated by Rousseau?

Then the state took over. A letter arrived from Lucien Bonaparte: “I claim him and request that you send him to me forthwith.” Victor was passed up the bureaucracy from the provincial commissioners to the minister of the interior in Paris, who watched him sniff incomprehensively at the innermost corridors of power and handed him over to a committee of experts. The experts, distinguished members of the Society of Observers of Man, examined him and pronounced him human.

In some ways, Victor resembled an ordinary twelve-year-old boy. He possessed the correct number of teeth, the right length of limb, five senses in workable order. Although he was not yet housebroken and still hated to wear clothes, he did not run around on all fours, as the peasants had reported. But he remained enclosed within an impenetrable shell of indifference to other people. He could make guttural noises and recognize some sounds, for he turned and tried to seize a walnut when it was cracked behind his head. But he showed no interest in anything but escape from his captors, and food.

You might say his mind is in his stomach; it is his life center…. I am embarrassed to find natural man such an egoist,” reported J.J. Virey, a protoanthropologist, who gave Victor a place among the monkeys, Hottentots, and Eskimos in his Histoire naturelle du genre humain. The Observers of Man dispatched with this difficulty by deciding that Victor was not a natural man after all but an idiot who had been abandoned in the forest by his parents. Thus declassified as a scientific specimen, he continued to be an administrative problem and remained at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes pending an institutional solution for his existence.

At this point, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, a young doctor at the Institute, took over the case. For five years Itard worked with Victor, slowly awakening his senses and developing his mental faculties. By 1806, the child who had wandered about naked in sub-freezing temperatures had developed a fondness for warm baths and clean sheets. Instead of grabbing potatoes out of the fire and gulping them down burning hot, he ate fully cooked food with a fork and spoon. No longer did he merely rock his body for hours staring vacantly into space; he made his wishes known by gestures, matched objects with labels, and even wrote some words, although he never mastered language, either written or spoken. The Observers of Man had got Victor wrong. He was no idiot, but what was he?

The diagnoses have changed and multiplied across the last two centuries. At first it seemed that Victor represented homo ferus, the category of wild man bordering the monkeys, monsters, and other neighbors of homo sapiens in the Linnaean system. The abbé Sicard, a pioneer in the training of deaf-mutes, thought Victor might have suffered from deafness but eventually decided for idiocy, as did Philippe Pinel, one of the first psychiatrists. Modern psychiatrists like Bruno Bettelheim have favored autism as an explanation, but some of them consider Victor too responsive to have suffered from anything more than some kind of functional retardation brought on by the deprivation of his early years. Others see counter-transference and the role played by Itard as the most important aspect of the case.

Itard himself described Victor’s condition in philosophical terms. Beginning with assumptions derived from Locke and Condillac, he improvised a kind of experimental psychology in order to cope with a fundamental problem: how can one mind penetrate another without relying on a shared set of symbols? He never solved it, but his attempts, recounted in two eloquent reports written in 1801 and 1806, influenced the course of several disciplines that were branching off from the older moral philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Victor’s case thus became a classic in several scientific literatures. In fact, it has been studied so often from so many viewpoints that one wonders why Roger Shattuck, a literary scholar known especially for his work on Proust, should have devoted yet another book to it. The last book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron by Harlan Lane, came out only four years ago and provides as exhaustive an account as is likely ever to be written. Shattuck’s study seems thin by comparison. It contains no new finding, and it goes over the old ground so lightly as to read in places like a parody of a textbook.

In a section on the epistemological background of Itard’s work, for example, the philosophers—“a Frenchman by the name of Descartes,” “a down-to-earth Englishman called John Locke,” “Condillac, a French priest”—streak by in three pages, trailing all the standard metaphors: the mind is a ghost in a machine, a tabula rasa, a soul in a statue come to life. Lane provides a more thorough discussion of Enlightenment epistemology. Not only does he do justice to Condillac, whose concept of attention or inquiétude took Lockean empiricism far beyond the notion of Pygmalion-like passivity, but he also shows how Condillac’s ideas were incorporated in contemporary medical theory and applied by Itard in the treatment of Victor.

For an adequate account of the historical background, one should also turn from Shattuck to Lane—or, better yet, to François Truffaut’s film, The Wild Child, where Victor wanders into a world poised between the style Directoire and the style Empire, and Truffaut gives a convincing performance of Itard, the scientist in the service of the state, bending over his writing desk in choke-collar cravat and sober redingote, scratching out his report ordered “in the name of humanity and science” by the minister of the interior. Shattuck does not capture the flavor of that intellectual and institutional Blütezeit after the taming of the Revolution and before the conquest of Europe, when a new breed of philosophers—the Observers of Man, the Ideologues, and the academicians in the Class of Moral and Political Sciences in the Institute of France—presided over the emergence of new bodies of knowledge: the social sciences and sciences humaines.

But to dismiss The Forbidden Experiment as inadequate history—too little too late in the marketplace of ideas—would be to miss its point. It deserves to be read as a story or, as Shattuck puts it, as “a straightforward narrative account” of Victor’s treatment.

In a simple, direct style, Shattuck tells how a young doctor beards the giants of his profession in order to cure the incurable and penetrate the inner recesses of human nature. The experiment looks promising, goes wrong, must be redesigned, seems to work, runs into an impasse, is abandoned—and through it all the scientist slides imperceptibly into an emotional rapport with the creature whom he had placed somewhere between plant and animal life in the Linnaean scale of being.

By telling a story, Shattuck dramatizes man’s general attempt to shake off his subjectivity and to make contact with other human beings. He therefore highlights certain scenes. Itard is trying to teach the young savage to recognize the sounds of vowels. Victor seems to enjoy the game. Blindfolded and laughing, he holds up different fingers as Itard makes different vowel sounds. But he cannot keep them straight. To stop the giggling and correct the errors, Itard raps him over the knuckles with a stick.

Tears trickled down from under the blindfold, and I hastened to take it off. But, out of embarrassment or fear or absorption in his own feelings, he kept his eyes closed even though the blindfold was off. I cannot describe the pained expression on his face with his eyes closed and every so often a tear coming out between the lids. Oh! at that moment as at many others when I was ready to give up the task I had imposed on myself and when I looked on all my time as wasted, how deeply I regretted ever having known this child, and how I condemned the barren and inhuman curiosity of those men who first uprooted him from an innocent and happy life!

Shattuck quotes directly from Itard’s report, because it is important at this point for the reader to hear the doctor’s voice. As each scene unfolds, reader, writer, subject, and scientist become swept up in the same process of sounding the soul. We are amused at Victor’s first sneeze, when he runs to his bed, terrified at the explosion produced by his own body. Our sympathy grows as he learns to match colors and shapes. And our emotions take over when the matching games reach a peak of complexity and intensity. Victor begins to fly into tantrums, throwing the puzzles about the room and biting the mantelpiece. The experimenter decides to try a form of shock treatment. Knowing that Victor is terrified of heights, he grabs him by the hips and holds him head first out a fifth-story window. Pale and trembling, Victor picks up the pieces and completes the puzzle. Then he throws himself on his bed and weeps his first tears.

Itard decides to experiment with injustice. After an especially successful session of puzzle-solving when Victor is beaming with pride and primed for a reward, Itard slams the props to the floor and drags the boy toward a closet in which he had been shut up on earlier occasions as a form of punishment. Victor resists, flails about in Itard’s arms, and finally in a paroxysm of rage bites him on the hand. “How wonderful it would have been at that moment to be able to make myself understood to my pupil, to tell him how that pain filled my soul with satisfaction and repaid me for all my trials!… I had raised a savage to the full stature of moral man.”

We begin to wonder who is the ultimate subject of the experiments, whose humanity is being aroused, where experimenting stops and living begins. Itard, a bachelor in his late twenties, worked with Victor almost every day for five years, but the boy lived in the Institute for Deaf-Mutes with a governess, Mme. Guérin, and her husband. Victor learned to set the table for the Guérins and to share their meals. One day Monsieur Guérin fell ill and had to be taken away for special care. Word finally arrived that he had died. The child followed his usual routine before dinner, but when Mme. Guérin saw the fork and spoon at her husband’s place, she burst into tears. Silently, Victor picked up the utensils and returned them to the cupboard. He never set three places again.

This is no anthropological exhibit but a fellow human speaking to us from across two centuries of time. The aura of experimentation fades, and we are left with a picture of the lonely scientist and his dumb companion at the end of their day’s work, at “the times I have never used for any kind of instruction. If, for example, I go to his room at nightfall when he has just gone to bed. Then he usually takes my hand, places it over his eyes, on his forehead, on the back of his head, and holds it with his own in the places a long while.”

It is a beautiful story, and we feel grateful to Shattuck for telling it so well. But it is not “straightforward narrative.” On the contrary, it illustrates the winding ways of an interpretative mode which seems to be sweeping the sciences humaines today just as the epistemological mode dominated them in Itard’s time.

Shattuck constructs most of his account around Itard’s reports, so his text begins as an explication of someone else’s. Itard ordered his texts logically rather than chronologically, and he built them on perceptions formed by premises. So Shattuck could not separate facts from philosophy and rearrange them as narrative. He could not even give an innocent reading of Itard’s texts, because they have been read and commented on by generations of social scientists.

Even before Itard, the abbé Bonnaterre rushed into print with a pamphlet about Victor, which bestowed a Latin title upon him, Juvenis Averionensis, and lined him up behind Juvenis Lupinus Hessensis, Juvenis Ursinus Lithuanus, and the other wild men listed by Linnaeus. By 1950 the species of homo ferus had grown to include about forty cases of creatures who had been dragged out of jungles into scientific or pseudo-scientific treatises.*

Shattuck lists six of them in an appendix. Unlike the Linnaeans, however, he includes cases of severe isolation in modern society: Helen Keller; Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” who buried his humanity in a London freak show; and Genie, a child shut up in a darkened room for eleven years by a demented father. In this way, Victor appears as one more case in the sad literature of medical pathology.

But Victor also belongs to the mythological species that extends from Romulus and Remus to Tarzan. A whole herd of wild men roams through our collective consciousness, reminding us that facts will not separate from fiction any more than from philosophy. Just as we cannot perceive Alexander Selkirk, the marooned Scottish sailor, without reference to Robinson Crusoe, his literary counterpart, we cannot make out Victor’s dim shape without summoning up Mowgli the jungle boy.

Even if we took account of the complexities of story telling and sifted through all the diagnosis, exegesis, and mythology inherent in the story of Victor, we still could not get a direct look at him. We must form our own interpretation of Shattuck’s interpretation of Itard’s interpretation of Victor’s opaque behavior—and no doubt some readers will question the interpretation of this reviewer. Modern philosophies do not ease our way through this hall of mirrors, because they provide so many different ways of seeing things. We can picture Victor as Lévi-Strauss’s mental bricoleur, Piaget’s collection of categories, Chomsky’s transformational grammarian, or Bettelheim’s empty fortress. Each theory fits in its own way, just as Condillac’s did. We can try them all on, like lenses at an optometrist’s, and we can lay them out before us in order to see them simultaneously. But none seems more persuasive than the others.

Faced with the impossibility of fixing Victor more firmly than Itard did, Shattuck wisely ends his book without concluding. Was the story worth telling once more? Certainly, because it stands as a parable of man’s attempt to understand himself. The ultimate Victor remains elusive, but the struggle to reach him generates significance of its own. As text succeeds text and gloss builds on gloss, the texture of the narrative deepens and the story reveals man at work, not as homo ferus but as an interpreter, a hunter and gatherer of meaning.

  1. *

    See P.J. Bonnaterre, Notice historique sur le sauvage de l’Aveyron (Paris, 1800); A.L. Gesell, Wolf Child and Human Child (Harper, 1941); J.A.L. Singh and R.M. Zingg, Wolf Children and Feral Man (Harper, 1942).

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