12 January, 2007

The Mole-Rat

Virgil has unwittingly defined the mole, thus:
Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, CUI LUMEN ADEMPTUM!
A hideous, shapeless, colossal monster, who cannot see at all.

A famished mole leapt one day to a young girl's throat.

The Mole is, in effect, the most monstrous of all created beings. It has the greatest muscular power of any quadruped; it is the most bloodthirsty of carnivores. It is the most complete of all of the mammals, not excepting man; it is the champion best armed for war, for labour, and for love.

I've heard a great deal of talk about the strength of the Elephant, who carries towers loaded with combatants upon his back. I myself have said much on the locomotive power of the Whale, who can encircle the globe in no more than fifteen days. The Bengal Tiger, finally, has been cited as a drinker of blood impossible to sate. But the prowess of the Elephant and the Whale are but trifles compared to the tours de force of the Mole—and the Creator has expent more mechanical ingenuity in the construction of the Mole's hand than in building all the skeletons of the giants of the earth and of the waters. Compared to the Mole, the Bengal Tiger is but a lizard in his sobriety, and but a lamb in his sweetness—for the Tiger has never turned his canines upon his own kind. Send two tigers in a box to a friend, and they will reach their destination without problem; put two moles in the same position, and they will have swallowed each other before the first stop.

The fine difficulty of moving along the surface of the ground like the Elephant or, like the Whale, in a fluid medium, which pushes one up and down by the degree of compression or dilatation in one's lungs! But put an Elephant or a Whale fifty feet under ground, in the same circumstances as the unfortunate Dufavel, and observe what the most desperate efforts of the cetacean or the proboscidian will achieve. Alas! Without picks to pierce the earth, and vigorous muscles to move themselves, even the gods would soon perish with the effort. Give the mole the tail of a Whale, or even that of an Elephant, and it will overturn the world!

It is obvious, moreover, that an animal destined to live in a medium like tufa should be armed with a means of locomotion more powerful than those creatures inhabiting an atmospheric or aquatic medium, the molecules of which can be displaced with the least opposition. The muscular superiority of the Mole over the Elephant is self-evident and cannot be disputed.

The Mole's jaw is armed with FORTY-FOUR redoubtable teeth. Its snout, the index of a stormy sensuality, has acquired such enormous proportions that it almost completely obstructs its sight (its sense of charity).

The Mole stirs its head, and the powdered soil spurts suddenly into the air, like the bitter wave from a Cachalot's spiracles.

Its stomach is an ever-burning furnace in which the most indigestible aliments instantly break apart, dissolve and disappear.

Its hunger is rabid, its love epileptic….

The existence of the Mole is a continual orgy of blood. Its stomach is seized by fits of rage three or four times a day. It will perish of starvation after ten hours of abstinence.

The Mole leaps upon its prey with a prodigious bound, seizes it under the belly, and plunges its long muzzle into the entrails, tearing open the wound with its hands so as to drown entirely in the blood of its victim, so as to delight through every pore. Every murder occasions a voluptuous ecstasy. A famished mole leapt one day to a young girl's throat and pierced her breast, before anybody had the chance to come to her aid.

Now, M. de Buffon has painted an edifying picture of the pastoral mores and virtues of the mole! And this virtuous beast has numerous friends in the agricultural press, for the current fashion is for the rehabilitation of ugliness. The canonisation of Saint Fabian has thrown all imaginations into delirium. Nothing is more beautiful than the ugly.

If the ancients had known of the Mole, it is more than likely that they would have consecrated it to Priapus…. god of the gardens. The Mole does not contradict that well-known dictum that love is blind.

With regards to blind love, there is something very painful to say to man, and above all excessively delicate to write in French. Today, for the first time, I admit my error in cursing the tenderness of my teachers, who condemned my childhood to a forced labour in Latin, instead of allowing it to develop freely in the great outdoors of vagabondage and of those perfumed hayricks so favourable to gymnastic exercise. I sincerely regret no longer possessing, as I once did, my Cornelius Nepos, so as to muddle through my explanation, in the manner of M. Dupin the spiritualist. I mean that if it is true, as science supposes, that an animal's place in the natural hierarchy is determined by the degree to which its organs each possess a unique function, then man must place himself upon a lower rung than that occupied by the Mole; in man there remain organs serving two functions, but in the Mole there are none. I shall not explain myself more clearly on this point, nor shall I examine the reasons for the desperate resistance offered by the virtue of the young moless to the brutal solicitations of her lovers.

M. Flourens the immortal, whose interesting studies of the colorisation of the duck's bones have opened to him the gates of the Academie Française, has made some curious observations on the history of the Mole. It turns out from the immortal's experiments that the Mole professes so sovereign a contempt for the vegetable diet that it prefers to let itself die than touch even the tastiest legumes with its teeth. I will boldly contradict this result, and, in the name of all-powerful analogy, I demand that the academician renew his experiment, taking care to substitute for the carrot a TRUFFLE, and I'd wager anything that the mole allows itself to be seduced by the truffle; for if this were not the case, the analogy of the snout would be faulty, and then what principle could we follow?

We understand, moreover, that a beast like the Mole cannot be the emblem of any individual human type. The Mole is not, in effect, the emblem of a single character, it is the emblem of an entire social period—the period of the birth of industry, the cyclopaean period, the darkest and most dolorous of all of those of the limbic phase. The Mole does not symbolise a single vice, it symbolises them all; it is the most complete allegorical expression of the absolute predominance of brute force over the intellect. It carries its dominant characteristical written in its snout—and see here the extent of the influence of the exaggerated development of a beast's olfactory apparatus. The Elephant, whom I naturally placed at the head of the proboscidians, is exclusively herbivorous, and with his frugality and reserve he willingly symbolises the innocent and chaste mores of the paradisiacal period. Meanwhile, because he carries a trunk, and is thus the parent of the Tapir and of the Mole, the Elephant is subject to the mood-swings which, on occasion, make his company so insufferable that you'll use a cannon to be rid of him. He is equally known to indulge in booze without trouble or remorse, and we know how far the unfortunate can be degraded by their passion for drunkenness.

The Mole is the receptacle of impurity mentioned in the Holy Scripture. If you take equal parts Bluebeard and Louis XV, Messalina and the Marquis de Sade, grind them all up in a mortar, heat, and distill, you will obtain the mole.

The Titan who heaps Pelion upon Ossa, the Enceladus whose convulsions give Etna such terrible nauseas, and who causes it to vomit torrents of fiery lava—that is the Mole, who also heaps mountain upon mountain, who stirs the entrails of the soil, and who multiplies eruptions of earth all over the prairies!

The Mole is the one-eyed Cyclops who labours the entrails of the earth, who digs subterranean tunnels, who feeds on human flesh, who crushes Galatea's lovers with fragments of rock; who thinks orgies without copious bloodflow quite bland. Where, except in the hideous cyclops, can we find the image of the Mole…. of the male Mole who possesses his female only after executing all his rivals…. who having killed them devours them, and, all soiled with blood, reeking of carnage, reclaims his beauty as the prize of his exploits?

For the long subterranean tunnels that your eyes follow along the prairie are not always those famous drainage-tunnels hollowed out by the mole to find the larvae and earthworms upon which it feasts. Just as often it will be an exit carved out by the female in retreat from the redoubtable obsessions of her persecutors. Love speaks loud to the sensuality of this species—and every female is subject to the claims of a crowd of suitors. The unlucky girl has only a brief respite, during the fierce duels in which her torturers indulge; she tries to profit from the conflict with an escape attempt. This might work for a day, or for however long the killing lasts; but barely is the struggle over when the victor, his vengeance satisfied, devotes himself to recapturing the fugitive. It is a siege, with all its rules—all the strategies of the miner are deployed—mines and counter-mines, boyaux circular at both ends, diagonal trenches, Cormontaigne and other stratagems. The resistance must nonetheless come to an end when the male succeeds in trapping his victim at an impasse. In effect, there remains no way for her to delay defeat, other than quickly to reach the surface; but daylight dazzles her, and her modesty is betrayed by spent efforts—the dolorous sacrifice is accomplit. To ensure her family's future, the mother henceforth uses all the talent used formerly by the virgin to defend her virtue.

We have seen examples of these tunnels of love as long as one kilometre; the hunting tunnels are no shorter. The hunting-tunnel is the route by which the Mole moves from his domicile to the feeding billet. The moler's art, invented in this century by the celebrated Henry Lecourt, tiller of Seine-et-Oise, is based almost entirely on knowledge of this passage. As the Mole is obliged by its voracity to make this journey many times a day, and especially in the morning and evening, it is very easy to trap him when one knows his route. The moler's art has made great progress for some years—but the extermination of the mole, like that of the cockchafers and of the caterpillars, can only be achieved by means of unified measures, based on the principles of association and solidarity, and practised on an immense scale. Some day, agriculture will gratefully erect statues to Henry Lecourt, having been delivered by him from the scourge of the Mole.

However, let us not forget to mention, before this event, one interesting particular of the mole's story. All creatures have their reasons for being here below, the Mole just as the cyclops. The Cyclopes forged ploughshares at the same time as swords. The Mole served agriculture as an instrument for drainage before that marvelous procedure was discovered. It cleans the prairie subsoil with salutary grooves, although it disfigures the surface with the deposits that it ceaselessly accumulates. But let us say no more on the subject; it would be wise to pray that the wicked beasts may exist no longer, to concede them the benefit of mitigating circumstances.

It was Henry Lecourt who measured the speed with which the mole moves through its subterranean tunnels. He planted along the entire length of one inhabited tunnel a certain quantity of haystraws ornamented with floating banderoles, and hermetically stopped up the mouth of the passage with a cornet pavilion. Then, when he saw by the agitation of the molehill that the enemy was close, he drew from the instrument an appalling note, which produced in the animal such an impression of terror that all the little flags along the line could suddenly be seen to turn over, like a batallion of misplaced dominos. By this curious experiment, repeated many times, he ascertained that the greatest speed of the Mole in its tunnel equalled that of the horse at great trot.

Let those who desire to know more about the mole investigate the writings of M. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the greatest scientific and zoological genius of this century, and the only savant who has understood the series, understanding thereby the principle of material analogy.

Many esteemed analogists, to whose opinion I would happily concede, do not entirely share my point of view on the mole. They are not at all convinced that Virgil had intended an allusion to this animal in the verse cited above. They say that this odious quadruped, prosperous, pot-bellied and greedy, is an emblem of the landlord. They find quite a marked resemblance between the mole, who turns the soil and drills subterranean communication-routes so as to pursue and capture everywhere the insects upon which it feeds—and the monopolists of the railroads and courier-services, who devour each other, who overturn all the commercial links of a country, and absorb all the transport-routes, so as to ransom travellers, their victims—who use their chemins de fers as electric telegraphs, and who ruin both the true traveller and the State by their agiotage [stock-jobbing]. These analogists add that the extreme nervous sensitivity of the Mole, which dreads the light and dies from the least scratch, admirably characterises the obstinate obscurantism of those monopolists of the bank and transport-systems, who dread the light likewise, because they know perfectly well that the first industrial reform, by killing the anarchic régime in which industry struggles, would kill them also. I have never denied the great truth in these similarities—nor that there is a little of the Mole in the railroad concessionaire, who makes a little good out of a great evil—but I believe the analogy of the Cyclops to be preferable.


The above is a chapter, 'La Taupe' or 'The Mole-Rat', translated from Alphonse Toussenel's 1847 L'Esprit des Bêtes. Toussenel is an incredibly obscure figure; until recently his Wikipedia article looked hilariously like this—
Alphonse Toussenel is a French writer born in Montreuil-Bellay, small meadows commune of Angers , in 1803 , and died in Paris in 1885 . Phalansterian eminent, it belongs more to the policy than with the pure literature. Its anticonformist imagination, not to say unslung, its surprising images, its unexpected bringings together, its excesses, its Utopias, its exaltations proc餥nt as much literary creation however very that political vision. Intransigent feminist, but also anti-English and notorious anti-semite - so much so that the editors, in their Foreword, disunite its opinions enemy of the Capital, misanthropist (" what there is best in the man, it is the dog ", quotes it forward), abolitionist, nourished Toussenel soil belongs to the species of the political and mystical literary men, pessimistic physiognomists and " 魡ncipateurs of the poor
Now it's been cleaned up a little. The only scholarly discussion of Toussenel concerns his rabid anti-semitism, except for Walter Benjamin's indomitable Arcades Project, wherein I first learnt of him. The two volumes of L'Esprit des Bêtes consist of descriptions of all types of creatures with a moral slant, in the tradition of Physiologus and the mediaeval bestiaries. The naturalist Louis-Pierre Gratiolet wrote that 'Nous connaissons mieux que Toussenel l'animal mort, mais aucun de nous ne connait comme lui l'animal vivant'. But although the genre is mediaeval, the aesthetic is very much of its time: Toussenel, like that other great fantasist Grandville, was an admirer of Charles Fourier, everyone's favourite socialist nutnut-genius. The subtitle of this work, Zoologie Passionelle, is in fact an explicit reference to Fourier's bizarre theories of natural attraction, and the repeated theme of 'analogy' in the text translated here derives from Fourier's obsessive delight in analogies between human and animal life. The emphasis on analogy as a guiding method—and indeed as a predictive one, as in the detail about the truffle—is typical of the whimsical but deadpan irony found in Toussenel's work, as in Fourier's. I find it hilariously funny! The chapter as a whole, however, stands out for its rather Poeian macabrism, which is why I chose it.

I own a copy of Toussenel's second volume, on birds, which Benjamin quotes liberally—there are marvelous passages on the symbolism of curves and arcs, among other delights. But the present translation is from the first volume, on land and sea creatures; this edition, printed by J. Hetzel in 1890 (I think), contains wonderful illustrations by Emile Bayard, best known for creating the poster-child of the musical Les Miserables. Bayard's designs for Toussenel are quite fascinating and unpredictable: alas, there is only one image for the chapter on the mole, but in another post I shall offer his fantastic designs for the whale.


I have endeavoured to reproduce Toussenel's orthographic eccentricities in my translation; he is inconsistent, for instance, in his capitalisation of animal-names. It has been frustrating that I could not track down all the references. I do not know who 'Dupin le spirituel' is—not, I think, Poe's famous detective, though it is historically possible—nor do I understand the reference to the military historian Cornelius Nepos. I do not grasp the significance of Saint Fabian—is Toussenel referring to the Saint Fabian, or satirising a contemporary? I can find no online reference to Henry Lecourt. I am not sure that 'M. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire' is Etienne, as I have linked above, as opposed to his son Isidore.

A couple of small notes: the Vergil quoted at the outset is Aeneid 3.658 on Polyphemus. The line was bawdily reused by Ausonius, see here. See also Baudelaire's Hymne à la Beauté, line 22, 'O Beauté! monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu.' In the last paragraph I have used the French 'chemins de fers' [sic] to translate Toussenel's 'rails-ways' [sic]. Other words I have left in the French, where appropriate, such as 'boyaux', which survives as an obsolete technical term in English; from the OED—'A branch of a trench; a zig-zag; a trench in rear of a battery, forming a communication with the magazine; a small gallery of a mine'. The archaic 'characteristical' translates the archaic French 'caractérielle', not an exact match, but what the hell.

For more: Toussenel on the Ermine, and on the Bat.


John B. said...

That was exhaustingly good fun to read.
Sort of related, sort of not (your mention of illustration made me think about it): You might like to know about BibliOdyssey, a site devoted to book illustration with links to various visual archives.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, John! I have come across peacay's site, and in fact we exchanged links on Grandville. The main reasons I don't read it regularly are a) that it doesn't contain enough text and commentary, which as a reader I demand, and b) that I use a very slow dialup connection, so any site which is mainly pictures is not worth the huge wait. Also, I find BibliOdyssey to be a bit overkill in quantity. I prefer the more restrained and select style of Giornale Nuovo.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, that was fantastic! Both the work and the translation.

I would love to see this adapted into a book for children?

Conrad H. Roth said...

ALT, your kind words are always balm to my troubled soul. The other chapters are far less dark than 'The Mole-Rat', so you could probably see it being read to kids.

Andrew W. said...

Actually, my informed suspicion is that children would particularly enjoy the mole section...

John Emerson said...

Check out the Star-nosed mole. Even more fearsome than the ordinary mole.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Weird indeed. Looks like something out of Haeckel.

Tesa said...

Would this mean, however, that a section on Naked Mole-Rats would not be suitable for children?

And if not, should humans clothe Naked Mole-Rats? (or, as they're called in the Southern U.S. states: Nekkid Mole-Rats)

Unknown said...

Dear Conrad H. Roth,

I love your writing and I would love to know what is the name of the book for Alphonse Toussenel that is translated to English...I think you mentioned in the Mole-Rat that you have a copy of it...I am talking about the book name L'Esprit des betes...I just can not find it translated in English and I do not know what the title would be...Your help is apprecaite it.

My e-mail is (Yousef_Khanfar@hotmail.com)...I appreciate your time. Thanx.


Conrad H. Roth said...

There is a translation by M. Edgeworth Lazarus called "Passional Zoology; or, Spirit of the Beasts of France" (1852). I don't own it and have not looked at it. (The translation here, it should be clear, is my own.)

Unknown said...

Dear Conrad Roth,

I hope all is well. What is the title of the second volume about the birds written by Toussene and do you have any idea where I can find one to buy. I appreciate your help.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yousef, the second work is Le Monde des Oiseaux, Ornithologie Passionnelle, and there are several print-to-order editions available on abebooks.com.

Unknown said...

Dear Conrad,

I am sorry, I meant if you know where I can find the Toussenel's second volume in English (any translaion to English) and what would be the title. HELP. Thank you

Conrad H. Roth said...

There is none, I'm afraid.