We are greatly indebted to Gavin McQuitty and Helene Bonnici for their fantastic efforts in translating this piece from the original French.
From `Zoologie Morale`; by Eugene Mouton
G. Charpentier, Éditeur; 13, RUE DE GRENELLE, PARIS ; MDCCCLXXXI (1881)
If the angel of devotion and humanity came one day to tell itself that human hypocrisy and vanity needs to be taught a lesson, that it is time to soften the hardness of marble hearts. That we must strike a decisive blow by giving people a spectacle that would make rocks themselves crack from weeping; it would be embodied certainly in the body of one of those animal saints who hot wet muddy, enslaved, barely fed; an example of renunciation very touching and sublime to human admiration. It’s not through its beauty or its skill, or its strength, or its originality that the barbet moralises or reforms man; it’s ugly, unsightly, tousled, plain; it doesn’t know wickedness or kindness; it doesn’t know how to eat others or be eaten; its skin is good for nothing, its flesh is not good at all. It seems that Providence has decided to systematically deprive it of any pleasant decoration in order to show, in all its glory, the dog inside, unless Providence wants to put the sum of its blessings by giving it humility as a visible sign of perfect virtue.
Whatever the barbet may be, in moral zoology, it is a kind of special case, one of those angelic animals, that is to say, one of those animals which brings one to tears.
There are philosophical animals which make one think, and angelic animals which make one cry: there you have the two first divisions of our new system of moral zoology.
We flatter ourselves that the scientific world and especially non-scientists will accept this new theory sympathetically on which we have based our classifications of animals.
All classifications of animals, up to now, have been afflicted by an incurable vice: that they have intended to seek specific characteristics in the animal under observation. Now, as we can only know things by the impression that they make on us, its not in the animal that we should be seeking these characteristics but in ourselves. What do these anatomical descriptions, these measurements, these tests, these experiments teach us about the true character of an animal, about the outstanding original features which make it a special being? Nothing. Once they’ve been dissected, all animals look the same, you do not need to have never eaten giblet stew to ignore how mankind can be easily mistaken on this.
On the contrary, you should perceive an animal’s true nature from the impression it makes on your intelligence or your feelings. By this reckoning, a child of five may make a better naturalist than Cuvier or Linné (famous naturalists).
In summary, moreover, whatever we do with animals, the thing which interests us the most about them is whatever are the most obvious things. And beyond that? The relations we have with them. The use we make of them, the inconveniences, the dangers that we can fear in them: all the rest is a purely scientific luxury. My system is therefore the only one which is both serious and useful and I urge you to consider it. So come on! Don’t listen to scholars/scientists. Instead, follow me and I will show you all the amazing, adorable things about these animals that science cannot. We will not lack subjects, alas, for the study of the barbet.
It is impossible to spend an hour on the streets of Paris without coming across a blind man sitting down or kneeling under a carriage entrance with his dog, and the dog is always a barbet. But these days I don’t even have to leave my house to indulge in my study of moral zoology, because from my window I can easily watch a blind man who has just settled under the carriage entrance to the house opposite.
The poor man has stopped and he is thinking.
I will tell you that I also have a theory about the thoughts of the destitute. Of course, I am always touched whenever I come across a man whose face gives away his misery, but if he walks with a determined step I am less worried about him. I tell myself that for the moment his life has some direction, that he is going somewhere, even if nothing awaits him there, hope at least draws him. Now, to hope when one is destitute/poverty-stricken is to already forget one’s present troubles and to enjoy the illusion of happiness. Moreover, it means gaining time. But if the poor man has stopped, with his back bent, hanging arms, his chin thrust forward; if he turns his head constantly from side to side as if he no longer knows where to go or what to do, ah! I can’t watch that and my heart breaks, because there I can see misery laid bare in all its horror.
The blind man knows the gate: apparently he’s only stopped there to get his bearings, he rolls out a mat on the ground, while the dog climbs onto the small barrel organ and sits on his behind, which as you know is the way dogs kneel.
The blind man half sits, half crouches/squats like a dice player. He leans sideways towards his dog, puts his arm around his neck, and seems to whisper secrets both soft and sad into his ear. He strokes him, he straightens his poor old dirty hair, he takes his paw and taps on it softly. What moving things we might hear if only these two talking souls had a voice! Without doubt the blind man in this mute language is talking to his dog about small matters that concern only them; he is asking him if he’s cold, if he’s tired, if he wants to stay there. Things which might not mean a lot to you and me but which interest them; because they are poor and humble as befits their situation.
The barbet listens to all this with a dreamy air; he concentrates all the power of his intelligence into his eyes in order to try and understand these sublime ideas; he catches a glimpse of some features, some rays which dazzle him; but he feels the beating of his master’s heart next to his and he is happy. However, he is aware of a feeling of duty; while receiving his master’s caresses, he draws himself gently away from his arms and resumes his position as beggar/supplicant.
This blind man is evidently an excellent man; he is, to my knowledge, the only one with a heart clever enough to think of giving his dog a slight bowl.
Before the immortal principles of ‘89’ (the principles of liberty, equality fraternity established during the French Revolution) changed the world, blind men made their dogs carry their bowls, in those days as classic as the clarinet. Since then, thanks to the progress of democracy and the production of iron, the goblet or the cup has replaced the primitive bowl. But it is heavy, hard, and above all, noisy.
My blind man, he, who is evidently a philosopher as much as a dog lover, invented a bowl made of plaited straw: it like one of those baskets which at midday take the place of the bags at our doors, it doesn’t weigh anything, so that the dog keeps the freedom of his mouth, which is no less precious to a dog than the freedom of the press is to a Christian. But this straw bowl has another advantage: it returns charity discreetly, it gets rid of the loud knocking which the fat pennies make as they fall into a tin cup and allows modest souls to give money quietly.
My blind man has therefore invented a speciality which in the order of virtues meanwhile is something as useful as the sewing machine.
I must however admit that something worried me about this; I wondered how the blind man could know when a penny was falling into the little bowl, since it couldn’t produce any noise. But apparently he had a very keen sense of hearing, because each time someone gave him a penny he took it straight away without ever missing it.
I continued to watch them, and I found the scene more and more touching. The dog was adorable. Each time someone passed by, he followed them with his eyes and turned his muzzle towards them with such an expression and such gentleness that most people couldn’t resist, stopped and gave money.
Where he was really charming is when another dog came along. In spite of that, he envied his friend’s liberty, and he looked at him. Sometimes the other dog came and watched him too, made some provocative gestures to him and wagged its tail as if to invite him to take a stroll or play.
Then the barbet explained to him that it wasn’t possible, that he was busy.
Me, I cried like a baby. There was an animal which every day without complaint or protest, forgetting its strongest instincts, sacrifices its pleasure, freedom, and movement to what it loves. Alas, to stay by its master’s side and which loves its master, which couldn’t live without him, and which would never doubt the heroism of its devotion! If this dog had shoes, who therefore out of all the people who have been passing by in front of him for the last hour would be worthy to tie his shoelaces?
I stayed there for ages, contemplating this scene, unable to tear myself away, when I suddenly thought: if I lingered any longer, the blind man would end up leaving the spot without my having had time to give him anything. So I got dressed and went out.
Just as I was about to cross the street, something totally unexpected happened which changed all my feelings and led my thoughts in a new, unexpected direction. A car came out of the gate where the blind man was. This man, before I had a chance to notice it, turned around again, casually picked up his mat and his barrel organ and parked himself on the pavement. When the car came out, he looked towards the gate and greeted someone in the car. I couldn’t believe this at first, but suddenly realised it was only managed by his sharp sense of hearing and smell. I approached the blind man, took a ten pence piece out of my pocket and put it in his straw bowl along with a sugar lump for his dog.
The blind man bent down, picked up the coin and shoved it roughly into his pocket, then stroking his dog, who was munching the sugar lump, turned his eyes towards me and said: “How good of you to consider my dog as well as me!”
“But”, I replied, rather taken back, “How did you know?”
“You gave my dog some sugar.”
“How did you know?”
“How did I know? Why, it’s easy to see.”
“Easy to see! So you aren’t blind?”
“Did I tell you I was blind?”
But you have a barbet and a barrel organ! It is abominable! It is a real scam! etc.. ! etc.. !
He looked at me for a minute, letting me rant on with an air of patience and I have to say superiority. When I had clamed down, he put his hand on my arm.
“Let’s see, old chap; you don’t seem a bad fellow, since you gave my dog a treat. Put yourself in my place, and hear me out. Let’s see now; is the ten pence you’ve given me going to cost you much? No, it isn’t, is it? Although you can see how poor I am and that I’m not begging on street corners for fun. Now it’s true: I’m not actually blind. Does that make you angry? Would you prefer it if I was? No – I’m right, aren’t I? You’re too kind-hearted to think like that. I admit that generally speaking, people with a barrel organ and a dog tend to be blind. But one doesn’t have to be, and the government can’t force me to gouge my eyes out just because I happen to possess these objects. I haven’t put up a sign saying that I’m blind. Every time someone asks me if I can see, I always tell that I can. But you can’t expect me to stop everyone just to tell them that actually I can see them, even though I have a stick and a barbet. Now I would be lying if I said that it has never crossed my mind that it’s been my good fortune to have this organ and this barbet, because that gives pleasure to people who like dogs and who pity the blind. I know that I wouldn’t have been given some of these coins if it wasn’t for that: but it’s no rip-off,moreover it’s for God or for heaven, or me who is very poor, or for my good dog who is poor, too, and well deserving. So sir, you see, you don’t know what to say, do you? Hand on heart, do you regret giving me your ten pence and your sugar lump?”
“Go in peace, good chap. I don’t regret giving you my money or my sugar: but I now have a brand new theory about the barbet, and that’s what I regret: you and your barbet have completely bowled me over.”
“A theory, my good man, what on earth do you mean by that?”
“A theory, my friend, is like a philosopher’s dog.”