The Bear boy from Lithuania

One of the effects of Descartes and Locke on philosophy was to produce a search for more and more deprived figures, automatons who'd undergone major subtraction and didn't dream of electric sheep – the man born blind, the deaf mute, the boy marooned with the tutor. It is the philosophical equivalent of playing can you top this. Or the minimalist tendency that made Beckett explore the smallest sentences, and Perec see if a story could be told without the letter ‘e’. Condillac came up with the wonderful idea of a statue with only one faculty – that of smell – in the Treatise on Sensations, and uses it to build up the sensations, one by one, unconsciously reproducing the Ur-welt of the Vedas – although of course, because we employ a language that arises out of our full set of senses, and because we operate with the senses all operating at once (I see these words on the screen, I have headphones on listening to the Rice University Post-punk show, the pressure of one bare foot is felt on the other, there’s the usual industrial/apartment nothing is there to smell smell), the artificiality of this way of talking about sensations leaves its marks. In this universe of deprived figures, we get - in chapter 7, third part - the man discovered in the forests of Lithuania.

Interestingly, Condillac introduces this chapter by admitting that the statue, as he has constructed it, might not reflect at all. The reason is: the statue might have to work to survive. To nourish himself. The dulling effect of work on reflection isn’t really questioned, although it is an interesting paradox, left us by the Enlightenment, that the perfect system of affluence, which involves the perfect and total system of labour, comes to us with the warning that you can have the labor or you can have the reflection – you can’t have both. A little fairy tale for us nomads of capitalism, the implications of which have been superbly ignored by philosophers on the whole, and so drifted down to be bounced around in the currents and capillaries of popular wisdom.

Not being busy reflecting, Condillac considers that our statue might have fallen in with beasts and spend all day poking around for food: It is even likely that in place of conducting himself in accordance with his proper reflection, it learns from the animals with which it leives most familiarly. It will walk as they do, imitate their cries, munch on grass or devour those of which it has the strength to seize. We are so strongly inclined to imitation that a Descartes, in its place, would not learn to walk on its feet: everything that he saw would suffice to keep him from it.”

Such is, it seems, the fate of a child of about ten years of age who lived among the bears. They discovered him in 1694, in the forests which are contained in Lithuania and Russia. He gave no sign of reason, walked on his feet and hands, had no language, and formed sounds that did not resemble any aspect of man’s. It was a long time before he could offer some words, and still he did it in a very barbarous manner. As soon as he could speak, he was questioned on his first estate, but he could remember no more than we can remember what happened to us in our cradle.”

Ah, that amnesia of the infant, here transferred to amnesia of the beast! I will return to this, but the point I want to make in this little post is that feral children are in the corners and crevices in the Enlightenment – if you poke around for them, they are, surprisingly enough, just on the horizon. Condillac’s reference to his statue eating grass might, in fact, be a reference to the sheep boy discovered by Rembrandt’s friend, Nicholas Tulp, in Ireland – Tulp is the doctor in the Anatomy Lesson. The sheep boy, raised by sheep, supposedly baaed and ate like sheep. A hard thing for the human digestive system to reconcile itself with, really.

I’ve referred to this site before – it is superb. The feral children site. Check it out.