Friday, October 3, 2008

Men of Science

"…Then, in small, unshaven, whispering groups, the men of science came sauntering through the gate, more slowly and diffidently than their humble assistants, and dispersed down different corridors, scraping the paint off the walls as they passed. Gray-haired, umbrella-carrying school-boys, stupefied by the pedantic routine and intensely revolting experiments, riveted by starvation wages their whole adult lives to these little microbe kitchens, there to spend interminable days warming up mixtures of vegetable scrapings, asphyxiated guinea pigs, and other nondescript garbage.

They themselves, when’s all said and done, were nothing but monstrous old rodents in overcoats. Glory, in our time, smiles only on the rich, men of science or not. All those plebeians of Research had to keep them going was their fear of losing their niches in this heated, illustrious, and compartmented garbage pail. What meant most to them was the title of official scientist, thanks to which the pharmacists of the city still trusted them more or less to analyse, for the most niggardly pay incidentally, their customers’ urine and sputum. The slimy wages of science.

Arriving in his compartment, the methodic researcher would spend a few moments gazing ritually at the bilious, decaying viscera of last week’s rabbit, which was on classic and permanent display in one corner of the room, a putrid font. When the smell became really intolerable, another rabbit would be sacrificed, but not before, because of the fanatic thrift of Professor Jaunisset, who was then Secretary General of the Institute.

Thanks to this thrift, some of the rotting animals gave rise to unbelievable by-products and derivatives. It’s all a matter of habit. Some of the more practiced laboratory technicians had become so accustomed to the smell of putrefaction that they would have had no objection to cooking in an operational coffin. These modest auxiliaries of exalted scientific research sometimes outdid the thrift of Professor Jaunisset himself, taking advantage of the Bunsen burners to cook themselves countless ragouts and other, still riskier concoctions.

After absently examining the viscera of the ritual guinea pig and rabbit, the men of science slowly proceeded to the second act of their scientific daily life, the smoking of cigarettes. Thus they strove to neutralize the ambient stench and their boredom with tobacco smoke, and managed, from butt to butt, to get through the day. At five o’clock they put the various putrefactions back in the ramshackle incubator cabinet to keep them warm. Octave, the technician, hid the string beans he had cooked behind a newspaper to get them safely past the concierge. Subterfuges. Taking them home to Gargan all ready for supper. The man of science, his master, was still writing a little something, diffidently, doubtingly in one corner of his laboratory book, with a view to a forthcoming and utterly pointless paper that he would feel obliged to present before long to some infinitely impartial and disinterested Academy and that would serve to justify his presence at the Institute and the meager advantages it conferred.

A true man of science takes at least twenty years on an average to make the great discovery, that is, to convince himself that one man’s lunacy is not necessarily another man’s delight, and that all of us here below are bored with the bees in our neighbors’ bonnets.

The coldest, most rational scientific madness is also the most intolerable. But when a man has acquired a certain ability to subsist, even rather scantily, in a certain niche with the help of a few grimaces, he must either keep at it or resign himself to dying the death of a guinea pig. Habits are acquired more quickly than courage, especially the habit of filling one’s stomach."


- Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Journey to the End of the Night

2 comments:

Brad said...

You are little more than slaves to your appetitive desires.

Shame on you!

Scott said...

The sad part is, as bleak as that sounds, it's not too far off.