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IdiocyA Cultural History$

Patrick McDonagh

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9781846310959

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315367

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A ‘pupil of innocent Nature!’ The wild boy of Aveyron goes to Paris

A ‘pupil of innocent Nature!’ The wild boy of Aveyron goes to Paris

Chapter:
(p.50) Chapter 3 A ‘pupil of innocent Nature!’ The wild boy of Aveyron goes to Paris
Source:
Idiocy
Publisher:
Liverpool University Press
DOI:10.5949/UPO9781846315367.004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores some of the main recurring themes in the reports written on the wild boy of Aveyron, including his shifting status as, among other things, Homo ferus, ineducable idiot, and tabula rasa who is simply awaiting the teacher with his chalk. In addition to Jean Marc Gaspard Itard's reports, it considers the descriptions by the naturalists Joseph Bonnaterre and J.-J. Virey, and the assessment of the boy presented by Philippe Pinel to the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme (Society of the Observers of Man). The writings about the wild boy condense certain fascinating elements of eighteenth-century thought concerning the boundaries of the human and questions about the virtue of the ‘natural man’, in a fusion of Enlightenment rationality and romantic desire for a pre-civilized state.

Keywords:   wild boy, Aveyron, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, Joseph Bonnaterre, J.-J. Virey, Philippe Pinel, natural man

In March 1797, a boy, about twelve years old and apparently feral, was caught by woodsmen in the fields around the town of Lacaune, in the rolling hills of southern France. He escaped after being on show briefly, was apprehended again in summer 1798, and again fled to the woods after several days. He was caught yet again by three hunters in mid-July of 1799, and was left with a peasant, who fed him on potatoes and nuts, the only food he accepted; he escaped – yet again – after eight days. Finally, he reappeared for good on 8 January 1800, in the village of Saint-Sernin in the district of Aveyron, where, perhaps motivated by hunger and remembering the kindness of the peasant, he approached the workshop of a dyer named Vidal, who took him in and called the appropriate authorities.

The wild boy was a sensation. Crowds gathered to see him in Saint-Affrique, where he was first placed in an orphanage; in Rodez, where he was transferred for observation to the custody of Abbé Pierre-Joseph Bonnaterre, professor of natural history at the École Centrale de l'Aveyron; and then in Paris, when, six months after entering Vidal's atelier, he first arrived at the Institution Impériale des Sourds-Muets (the Imperial Institute for Deaf-Mutes), headed by Abbé Roche-Ambroise Sicard. ‘L'enfant sauvage de l'Aveyron’, as he quickly became known, was a nine-day wonder in French media and society. As Joseph-Marie de Gérando wrote, ‘this news, which has been featured in the papers for some time now, has occupied the idle, attracted the curious and provided fodder for many discussions, at the very least premature, as they are founded purely on conjecture’ (de Gérando 1848: 110–11).1 The much anticipated and widely discussed arrival of this ‘natural man’ in the national capital entranced the Parisian intelligentsia and distracted regular citizens from more quotidian concerns.

(p.51) The appearance of a genuine feral boy provided material not only for newspaper and journal articles but also poems, plays and at least one novel. Among the contemporary works exploiting the wild boy's appearance was a vaudeville piece by Dupaty, Maurice and Chazet entitled Le Sauvage du departement de l'Aveyron ou Il ne faut jurer rien (The Wild Boy of Aveyron, or You Never Can Tell). In a preview of the play from Le Journal de Paris of 28 March 1800, we are told that a young Russian officer and prisoner of war, Polinski, falls in love with Mme Nina de Senanges, and discovers that the way to impress her would be to bring her the boy caught in the woods of Aveyron. After tracking down the hunters, Polinksi disguises himself in the costume of the wild boy (presumably not naked) and eventually uses this stratagem to win Nina's love (Gineste 2004: 181). In an excerpt published in Le Journal de Paris two days later, the faux ‘wild boy’ is examined by a physician, who sings

  • I shall now contribute to
  • Medicine and physics
  • Bear with me while I perform
  • A few anatomical studies on him,
  • Does he believe that I have ill designs?
  • His face shows his terror!
  • Could he fear a physician?
  • (Gineste 2004: 183)2

In addition, J. A. Neyer's novel Rodolph ou le sauvage de l'Aveyron was announced in advertisements that appeared in the Journal général de la literature français for 2 October 1800, although the book itself remains elusive and may never have been published (Gineste 2004). Most of these works are profoundly ephemeral, and not overly concerned with reconstructing anything like a factually accurate history (see Gineste 2004: 41–43; 181–83). But, for a time, the wild boy made a convenient premise upon which to launch a narrative.3

That is what the English poet Mary Robinson did in one of the few pieces of wild-boy ephemera to be recovered intact from history's dustbin – although she stays closer than most to the real narrative. Robinson, in the midst of losing the battle with what would be her final illness, composed ‘The Savage of Aveyron’ in December 1800 (quotes here taken from Pascoe 2000). Her ‘wild boy’ is not an abandoned child but rather one who had been witness to the murder of his mother and had survived attempts on his own life (the latter point has some factual grounding – the boy had scars suggesting that he may also have been an intended murder victim). The poem's narrator, wandering in ‘The lonely wood of Aveyron’ (line 2), overhears a ‘melancholy tone’ and freezes in terror. The narrator, too, has a melancholy temperament – ‘I (p.52) thought no living thing could be, / So weary of the world as me’ (lines 13–14) – and forms a bond with the wild boy, who nimbly climbs trees and shrieks the only word in his vocabulary: ‘alone’. The boy eventually leads the narrator to his sleeping place, where there is a rag that had belonged to his murdered mother. The narrator brings the poem to a close with the realization that she is not the most abandoned of all creatures, but that the savage boy may well be:

  • And could a wretch more wretched be,
  • More wild, or fancy-fraught than he,
  • Whose melancholy tale would pierce AN HEART
  • OF STONE.
  • (lines 172–75)

Robinson's poem is affecting and melodramatic, stressing the sympathetic connection – born of melancholy and solitude – between the wild boy and the narrator.4 These themes, interestingly, are also prominent in some of the more formal and scientific descriptions of the boy and case studies of his treatment. J.-J. Virey and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, for instance, were not averse to drawing on stock romantic imagery to describe the wild boy, as we shall see.

The early flurry of cultural products – journal articles as well as songs, novels, poems and plays – documenting and exploiting the wild boy's discovery was overshadowed eventually by those most famous and influential documents, the 1801 and 1806 reports published by Jean Itard, the boy's guardian and teacher. This chapter explores some of the main recurring themes in the reports written on the boy, including his shifting status as, among other things, Homo ferus, ineducable idiot and tabula rasa who is simply awaiting the teacher with his chalk. In addition to Itard's reports, we shall also consider the descriptions by the naturalists Bonnaterre and Virey, and the assessment of the boy presented by Philippe Pinel to the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme (Society of the Observers of Man). The writings about the wild boy condense certain fascinating elements of eighteenth-century thought concerning the boundaries of the human and questions about the virtue of the ‘natural man’, in a fusion of Enlightenment rationality and romantic desire for a pre-civilized state.

Searching for the natural man

Philosophers as distinct as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, struggling to understand the nature of human cognition, had hypothesized a sort of unadorned man, a pre-societal (p.53) figure who, if found and observed, could resolve the debates over exactly how humans came to think. Taxonomical concerns also ranked high among the intellectual issues of the day; from the mideighteenth century, philosophers and natural historians worked to distinguish humans from animals, with savages, Homo feri and great apes (especially, it seems, orang-utans) occupying a transitional or shifting position. These two lines of inquiry – the philosophical and the taxonomical – led to the same questions. What constituted a human being? Did humans exist on a continuum with beasts, or were they a separate entity? Where did savages rest on this hierarchy? And where were idiots? The questions were not without difficulties.

The capture of the wild boy promised answers to at least some of these intellectual conundrums, and the timing was serendipitous. The Société des Observateurs de l'Homme – a group of about sixty physicians, philosophers and naturalists – had been formed in December 1799, in the aftermath of Napoleon's consolidation of power and the apparent end of the bloodshed of the revolution (Shattuck 1980). Members of the group included the renowned psychologist Philippe Pinel, who, upon being named médecin-chef of the Bicêtre hospital in Paris in 1793, began his policy of releasing the mad from their physical chains and replacing this restraint with ‘moral treatment’, and Abbé Roche-Ambroise Sicard, director of the Institution Impériale des Sourds-Muets, who had developed innovative strategies for teaching language to the deaf. The calming of revolutionary violence also made it possible for people to pay attention to something so extraneous to daily demands as the presence of a wild boy. As Roger Shattuck observes, ‘Because of the timing, people all over France took notice of him…. He had come on stage just as the eye of the storm passed over’ (Shattuck 1980: 50).

When Lucien Bonaparte, Minister of the Interior, became aware of the wild boy's final capture, it was almost a month after the fact; on 1 February 1800, he requested that the child be brought to Paris, but Bonnaterre requested more time to complete his observations. Eventually, though, on 20 July 1800, the boy began his eighteen-day journey to Paris, accompanied by Bonnaterre and Clair Saussol, the gardener from the École Centrale who had been serving as his caregiver (Gineste 2004). When he arrived in Paris, where he was to be placed in the Institution Impériale des Sourds-Muets, the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme assigned a committee of five members to investigate him: Sicard, as keeper of the Institute; Pinel; Georges Cuvier, the renowned anatomist and taxonomist; Joseph-Marie de Gérando, a moral philosopher and naturalist; and Louis-François Jauffret, naturalist and co-founder of the Société (Lane 1976; Shattuck 1980).

(p.54) Almost immediately after his capture, the boy was transformed into a subject for learned papers. Bonnaterre published his ‘Notice historique sur le sauvage de l'Aveyron’ in August 1800; this was followed a couple of months later by J.-J. Virey's ‘Histoire naturelle du genre humain (avec une dissertation sur le sauvage de l'Aveyron)’. Philippe Pinel presented a paper on the wild boy at a December 1800 conference of the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme. Most famous, though, are the accounts of the boy written by Jean Itard, De l'Education d'un homme sauvage ou des premiers développements physiques et moraux du jeune sauvage de l'Aveyron in 1801 and his later report in 1806.5

These writings were informed by a number of philosophical traditions, most clearly those associated with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, completed in 1689, Locke theorizes that the human mind is like a tabula rasa, a blank slate, which acquires knowledge as the memory records experience. Based upon this knowledge, the mind eventually learns to reason and to make abstractions. France's most prominent advocate of Locke's system, Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, extended Locke's theories in his Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746), most notably by elaborating on the link between sensory data and intellectual development (a distinction that greatly influenced Itard's instruction of the wild boy, and later Édouard Séguin's educational methods). The arrival of a wild child, untutored by humans and without the language that enables one to formalize thought, provided a means for philosophers to examine the empiricist ideas of Locke and Condillac. But there were opposing schools as well. What if the wild child, acquiring language, were able to recognize and present the innate ideas hypothesized by Cartesian thought? What shape might these ideas take when in pre-linguistic form? Or could the wild boy resolve the questions posed by Rousseau regarding the fundamental nature of man and its transformation by social life and civilization? Was Rousseau correct in arguing that socialized man is a degraded man, and that the ambivalent morality of civilized life spoils that which, in its more primitive, wild form, is noble? The wild boy would have an eager audience, when – and if – he learned to speak.

These questions extended beyond asking ‘What is the nature of human understanding?’ to the much more fundamental ‘What is a human?’ In his Systema Naturae of 1758, the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné – better known as Linnaeus – proposed that the family of man, Homo, be divided into sapiens, or Homo diurnus, and troglodyte, or Homo nocturnus. Homo diurnus he then further divided into six groups: Homo ferus, americanus, europaeus, asiaticus, afer and, as a final catch-all (p.55) category, monstrosus. Homo nocturnus was represented by the orangutan, a creature whose status baffled philosophers and taxonomists; the orang-utan had in fact been christened Homo sylvestris by the seventeenth-century Dutch physician Jakob de Bondt, or Bontius as cited by Linnaeus (1758: 24).6 The wild boy was clearly an example of Homo ferus, according to the Linnaean categories and to commentators such as Bonnaterre and Virey. Linnaeus identifies a number of feral precedents to support his taxonomy, noting that these feral humans were characterized by being ‘tetrapus, mutus, hirsutus’ – that is, they moved on all four limbs, did not speak and were hairy.

What is the relation between natural man and idiots, though? Unlike Homo feri, ‘idiots’ did not form any distinct taxonomical categories. However, some writers – most notably Locke – treated the problems posed by ‘idiocy’ as being both philosophical and taxonomical. As Locke's influence shows heavily in the thought of Condillac and Pinel, and in the treatment that Itard developed for the wild boy, we will take a detour through some of his writings on idiocy. One question looms prominently: why were Locke and Pinel so insistent that idiots were not only incurable but also ineducable? How did this idea take hold?

In book II of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argues that the ability to reason distinguishes men from brute animals.7 Immediately after making this argument, he establishes a distinction between idiots (or ‘naturals’, as he terms them) and madmen based upon their apparent reasoning processes:

In fine, the defect in naturals seems to proceed from want of quickness, activity and motion in the intellectual faculties, whereby they are deprived of reason; whereas madmen, on the other side, seem to suffer by the other extreme: for they do not appear to me to have lost the faculty of reasoning; but having joined together some ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for truths, and they err as men do that argue right from wrong principles…. In short, herein seems to lie the difference between idiots and madmen, that madmen put wrong ideas together, and so make wrong propositions, but argue and reason right from them; but idiots make very few or no propositions, and reason scarce at all. (11, 12–13)

As Chris Goodey argues, Locke is proposing a subtle division in the ‘Great Chain of Being’ hierarchy, arguing that while madmen are human, idiots veer towards the bestial because of their failure to achieve rationality. Idiots, incapable of reasoning (or of reasoning very little, and poorly at that) rest somewhere below the fully human as defined by rational capacity. In book III, Locke develops the human/idiot distinction more emphatically (he uses the terms ‘natural’ and ‘changeling’ in this passage8):

(p.56) There are creatures in the world that have shapes like ours, but are hairy, and want language and reason. There are naturals amongst us that have perfectly our shape, but want reason, and some of them language too. There are creatures, as it is said … that, with reason and language, and a shape in other things agreeing with ours, have hairy tails; others where the males have no beards, and others where the females have. If it can be asked, whether these be all men or no, all of human species? it is plain, the question refers only to the nominal essence: for those of them to whom the definition of the word man, or the complex idea signified by that name, agrees, are men, and the other not. But if the inquiry be made concerning the supposed real essence, and whether the internal constitution and frame of these several creatures be specifically different, it is wholly impossible for us to answer, no part of that going into our specific idea; only we have reason to think, that where the faculties or outward frame so much differs, the internal constitution is not exactly the same. But what difference in the internal real constitution makes a specific difference, it is in vain to inquire; whilst our measures of species be, as they are, only our abstract ideas, which we know; and not that internal constitution, which makes no part of them. Shall the difference of hair only on the skin, be a mark of a different internal specific constitution between a changeling and a drill, when they agree in shape, and want of reason and speech? And shall not the want of reason and speech be a sign to us of different real constitutions and species between a changeling and a reasonable man? And so of the rest, if we pretend that distinction of species or sorts is fixedly established by the real frame and secret constitutions of things. (6, 22)

Locke's concern is with the nature of the human and he argues that, in the absence of a clear sense of internal workings of the mind, we have to judge the human according to that which we can perceive with our own senses. And our senses should suggest that ‘idiots’ do not operate like other humans and thus are quite probably not like other humans. To address the problem posed by the apparently ambivalent humanity of the idiot, Locke suggests a new taxonomical position:

It would possibly be thought a bold Paradox, if not a very dangerous Falsehood, if I should say, that some Changelings, who have lived forty years together, without any appearance of Reason, are something between a Man and a Beast…. Here every body will be ready to ask, if Changelings may be supposed to be something between Man and Beast, ‘Pray what are they?’ I answer, Changelings, which is as good a word to signify something different from the signification of MAN or BEAST, as the names Man and Beast are to have significations from one another. (book IV, 13–14)

Locke's psychological presentation of human nature in the Essay has a powerful political dimension: if individuals begin as blank slates and acquire knowledge through sensory experience, then they are (p.57) autonomous individuals, and pose a challenge to established church and government authorities. Individual autonomy leads to all sorts of theological and political notions, including the idea that individuals are responsible for their own moral destiny – an important religious precept for a dissenter with a Calvinist upbringing like Locke, and one which has implications for the exercise (or limitation) of both royal and ecclesiastical authority. But what of humans who do not seem to acquire the knowledge and rationality necessary to take this responsibility? What of those humans for whom sense impressions leave only a temporary mark, rather than translating into experience and knowledge? Locke's idiots are enlisted to form a contrast group, the exception proving the rule that humans are rational, autonomous beings.

Of course, to serve this function, the idiot must also be a stable figure – that is, he must be neither curable nor educable, because if he were either, Locke would need to find another contrast group, and so ‘in Locke's hands the concept of idiocy looks more like a desperate remedy, a few pieces of sticking plaster for fissures in the law of nature’, writes Goodey (1994: 242), who stresses that ‘Locke had no unified theory of idiocy as a component of his psychology’ (1994: 222). Locke's thesis around idiocy seems to be adapted to his needs on an ad hoc basis – he is making it up as he goes along. And instead of simply reiterating a set of established precepts, he draws on a specific set of sources on idiocy (medical and jurisprudential notions, as opposed to class notions concerning the idiocy of illiterate labourers or genderbased ideas on the inherent irrationality of women) and transforms them to hypothesize his own particular figure of the idiot. Locke's idiot is theological rather than sociological (Goodey 1996), used to score philosophical points rather than to inform social policy. However, ‘posterity has picked from [Locke's] idiocy what it has found convenient’, writes Goodey (1994: 248); the philosopher's influence at the birth of the discipline of psychology is such that his notion of idiocy, drafted to support an argument, eventually becomes incorporated as a professional truism. Thus Pinel, examining the wild boy of Aveyron 120 years after Locke's essay, asserts that ‘there is no hope whatever of obtaining some measure of success through systematic and continued instruction’ (quoted in Lane 1976: 69). ‘[T]o be an ideot’, writes Pinel in his Traité médico-philosophique sur l'aleniation mentale; ou la manie (1801), translated into English as A Treatise on Insanity (1806), ‘is to be almost levelled with an automaton’. People so afflicted ‘seldom admit of redress…. Humane attention to their physical wants and comforts, is in general the utmost that can be devised or done for these unfortunate beings’ (quotations here and below are from Robinson 1977: 202).

(p.58) Pinel's Treatise on Insanity describes in detail various forms of mental degeneration, including idiocy, and while he does transform the condition significantly from Locke's conception of it, there are also important continuities. According to Pinel, ‘Ideotism … is a partial or total abolition of the intellectual and active faculties’. Several possible causes are listed:

excessive and enervating pleasures; the abuse of spirituous liquors; violent blows on the head; deeply impressed terror; profound sorrow; intense study; tumours within the cavity of the cranium; apoplexy; [or] excessive use of the lancet in the treatment of active mania. The greatest number of ideots are either destitute of speech or are confined to the utterance of some inarticulate sounds. Their looks are without animation; their senses stupefied; and their motions heavy and mechanical. (Robinson 1977: 165)

The condition thus described by Pinel was not unusual; indeed, he noted, ‘Ideots constitute the greatest number of patients at lunatic hospitals; and their pitiable condition, has in too many instances, originated in severity of treatment experienced at other places’ (Robinson 1977: 166). He goes on to observe that ‘At Bicêtre [idiocy] constitutes one fourth of the whole number of patients’, in large part, he claims, because the hospital is considered a repository for the untreatable (168). The idiocy Pinel describes in these passages is not congenital but acquired; congenital idiocy, he suggests, is most often caused by ‘a malformation of the cranium’ (166), and he later gives as evidence of this claim the ‘state of degradation and nihility’ that one can observe in ‘the Cretins of Switzerland … [who] exhibit, from their earliest years, unequivocal indications of their future destiny’ (169). Pinel understands idiocy as a condition that, while not necessarily congenital, is certainly permanent and incurable. It is also remarkably fluid, resulting from a wide variety of distinct causes that share a common consequence: an apparent lack of physical and intellectual will.

Over the years, Locke's philosophical gambit transformed into a psychological truth, and the doctrine of idiot ineducability clung aggressively to the canons of received psychological knowledge, despite observations to the contrary. Even Pinel wrote that

The natural indolence and stupidity of ideots, might in some degree be obviated, by engaging them in manual occupations, suitable to their respective capacities. With an able active man at their head, ideots are capable of being drilled into any sort of service where bodily strength alone is requisite. The new plantation at Bicêtre was made almost altogether at their expense. (Robinson 1977: 203)

(p.59) Here we might question precisely what writers like Pinel mean when they refer to the ineducability of idiots. They may simply be indicating that idiots could not attain advanced philosophical knowledge, such as that exhibited by the members of the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme. The much more general notion of ‘idiocy’ as something shared by certain groups of people – the lower classes, women, children and savage peoples, most notably – would perhaps have muddled distinctions further and obscured the fact that individual people identified as ‘idiots’ did indeed show signs of learning things, because, even in learning, they would elevate themselves only from their specific idiocy to the more general idiocy of the mass of humanity – the types of people who build edifices but do not administrate them. This might explain Pinel's apparently contradictory assertions that people diagnosed as idiots can be directed to perform certain complex tasks, such as building a plantation, yet they cannot be taught.

John Locke's notions of a stable, unchanging idiocy reverberated through the development of psychology and, indeed, democratic society. ‘Locke's view of what it is to be human emerged upon forfeit of a sacrifice; … a concept of “man” is generated only by excluding from that concept certain “men”’, Goodey argues (1994: 249). Lockean natural law as it applies to species distinction is based on the belief that humans are distinguished from animals by rational processes. Otherwise, without this distinction, humans would lapse into a dangerous zone where they could be understood as simply another form of animal. Locke's conception of the human and of human understanding requires the idiot as a sort of ‘buffer zone’ between man and beast, as he negotiates the ‘abyss’ created when reason is identified as the defining human characteristic (Goodey 1994: 248).

Taxonomies grow out of philosophical and political as well as biological propositions.9 For Locke, idiots or changelings pose problems because they are apparently human yet are also without the rational faculties that he uses to define humanity, and they must somehow be turned to useful account. Thus, the theory of rational consent fundamental to liberal democracy necessitates the construction of a contrast group, those incapable of rational consent. As Goodey notes, ‘at the strange birth of liberal England there are some other anomalous offspring emerging. Totally determined inhuman idiots, at the opposite end from liberty, are necessary to the theory of consent’ (Goody 1996: 114).

In France, Locke's work was continued by Etienne Bonnot, the Abbé de Condillac, who had proposed as a thought experiment a statue that is given sentience through the awakening of each of its senses. In his 1754 work Traité des sensations (translated in English as Treatise on the (p.60) Sensations), Condillac hypothesizes what sort of being would result if the sense of touch is first developed; then, what would result from awakening the sense of hearing exclusively; and so forth, finally bringing them all together to argue, following from Locke, that human experience and knowledge are a consequence of accumulated sense impressions. While statues that could be awakened in such a manner were an impossibleto-find resource, limited to the realm of philosophical fantasy, Homo feri, although rare, were possibly the next best thing.

Thus, wild children assumed an increasingly important status in Enlightenment thought as subjects upon whom philosophers could test theories of human nature, innate ideas, the acquisition of knowledge and language, and the role of civilization in forming or transforming the true nature of humans. Ironically, many of these ‘feral children’ were likely to have been abandoned idiots, who would have been well beyond the pale of psychological and philosophical consideration had they been found in a peasant's hovel (Bewell 1989). Still, avid students of human consciousness flocked to examine each feral human pulled from the shrinking forests of Europe10 and there was limited but sufficient opportunity to do so, with twelve cases being reported between 1661 and 1797 (Douthwaite 1994/95).11 As Douthwaite (1997: 176) notes: ‘Enlightenment writers turned children found in the wild into the basis of zoological taxonomies, tales of sin and redemption, schemas of primitive society, or proof of human degradation’.

Taxonomizing the wild boy

The various taxonomical and moral functions ascribed to allegedly wild children are evident in the first two major reports on the wild boy of Aveyron, those by Bonnaterre and Virey. In their works, they itemize his various characteristics, beginning with a description of his physical qualities, then discussing the boy's lack of speech, the development of instincts (including such things as personal attachment), his eating habits and the daily regimen. Both agreed that the boy seemed to straddle the gap between human and beast. ‘The child's manner of living has provided less contact with man than with animals’, notes Bonnaterre (see Gineste 2004: 265). As a result, he behaves more like an animal than a human. ‘Endowed only with instinct by nature, this child performs purely animal functions: he has no knowledge of feigned passions or conventional needs, which become as present as natural needs. His desires do not go beyond his physical needs’, according to Bonnaterre (268). However, he concedes, the child's ‘constant need for (p.61) nourishment increases his connection with the objects around him and develops in him a certain measure of intelligence’ (270). Bonnaterre places the boy solidly as one of Linnaeus' Homo feri in his comparisons with other feral children:

He has pale skin, a pleasing physiognomy and is slender, like the savages of Lithuania and Ireland and the girl from Châlons.

Only with great effort can he be accustomed to ordinary food, like the child of Lithuania.

He chooses the foods that he likes by smell, like the children of Ireland, Hanover and Jean of Liège.

When he was captured and during our voyage, when he saw a fountain or a stream, he lay down on his stomach and drank, putting his chin in the water up to his mouth, like the girl from Châlons. And like her, he disdains any form of clothing and constantly attempts to escape.

When tired, he was seen to walk on all fours, like the savages of Hesse, Ireland and Bamberg.

He defends himself by biting, like the children of Lithuania and Bamberg.

He shows only feeble signs of reason, like the child of Lithuania found in 1661.

He has no articulated language and may have the same difficulty speaking as the children found in Ireland, Lithuania and Hanover. He is gentle, compliant and allows himself to be caressed, like the child from Hanover and the girl from Over-Yssel.

(Gineste 2004: 278)

Despite the fact that early in his report Bonnaterre identifies the boy as a ‘being who is limited or verging on an imbecile’ (266), at its conclusion he sounds a cautiously hopeful note:

Such an astounding phenomenon will provide philosophy and natural history with important ideas regarding the primitive nature of man and the development of his intellectual faculties, provided that the state of imbecility, which we have seen in this child, is no obstacle to his instruction: but every success may be expected from this teacher of philosophy [Sicard] who has worked such miracles in this type of education; and one must hope that the child entrusted to his care may one day become the equal of Massieu, Fontaine and Mathieu [deaf students of Sicard's]. (Gineste 2004: 279)

Virey also emphasizes those characteristics that identify the boy as Homo ferus, but counterpoints these passages with theological and philosophical observations. ‘How could he know the existence of God, for example? Let him be shown the skies, green fields, earth's vast expanse, Nature's creations; he is aware of nothing if there is nothing to eat’, Virey writes. ‘One could believe that his mind is in his stomach, that it is the centre of his life. The scientist and the philosopher, on (p.62) the contrary, live exclusively in their heads’ (see Gineste 2004: 317). However, despite the boy's limitations, Virey asserts ‘I have detected no clear sign of idiocy in the young man; I have seen only the profound, dark ignorance of a simple soul, who undoubtedly seems quite stupid compared to well-raised and sharp-witted Parisians of the same age’. But this ‘profound, dark ignorance’, he suggests, may render it impossible, ‘even for the renowned Sicard, to completely drive the inertia from the mind of the boy from Aveyron’ (299–300). Virey identifies the boy as both a ‘child of nature’ (314) and ‘purely an animal, limited to simple physical sensations’ (323). All the same, the boy's entry into civilized European society prompts Virey's closing eulogy on his loss of natural innocence:

Go forth, young one, into this unhappy world; lose your primitive and simple crudeness in civil society. You lived in ancient forests; you found nourishment at the base of oaks and beeches; you quenched your thirst in clear spring waters; and, content with your destiny, limited to simple desires, satisfied with a life beyond which you know nothing, the usufruct of the earth was your sole domain. Now you have nothing except through the charity of man; you are at his mercy, without property, without power, and you have gone from freedom to dependence. Thus are born poor three quarters of humanity: what bitterness was prepared for you, in tearing you from the dryads who saw to your protection! You had but one need: to nourish yourself; how many others that you fail to satisfy will now dog you relentlessly? How many desires shall sprout under your feet and grow with the tree of your knowledge, with your social ties? How completely you shall lose your independence to the political shackles of our civil institutions! The tears you shall shed! The road to your education will be sprinkled by your weeping: and when your new soul once again rises toward the blue canopy of the skies, when you will distinguish order from beauty in this vast universe, what new thoughts will germinate in your young mind! When love finally opens the doors to a new existence, how many new and delicious sensations and unknown passions will stir in your sensitive heart! May you live happily among your compatriots! May you, simple man, display the sublime virtues of a generous soul and pass on to future generations this honourable example, as eternal evidence of what can be accomplished by a pupil of innocent Nature! (Gineste 2004: 323–24)

Virey's wild boy rests upon the borders of knowledge, and will soon cross over into the land of the civilized, with its heightened sensibilities, complex desires and emotions, and wrenching social inequalities; he is, like Adam, poised to leave his prelapsarian paradise. Yet, he trusts, the boy's heritage – guarded by protective dryads and nourished at the roots of the beech and the oak – should provide him with the necessary moral strength to resist the corrupting aspects of social (p.63) life and become a true Enlightenment man, his soul expanded by knowledge, love and generosity.

But Virey's projection of the wild boy's future as an educated citizen of the new republic was a Rousseauian anomoly. More common was the position taken by Pinel in his presentation to the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme, given two days before Itard took responsibility for the boy at the end of 1800. Pinel moved away from general arguments about Homo feri to the specific observation that all attempts to teach the boy must fail for the simple reason that this particular Homo ferus was an ineducable idiot, and his ‘wildness’ a consequence of a fundamental inability to learn. Wrote Pinel in 1800, ‘The child seems to have no notion of anything that does not have a bearing on his subsistence or his means of escape; or, lacking attention, he has only fleeting ideas, which disappear as quickly as they appear’ (see Gineste 2004: 329). To support his case, he juxtaposed the wild boy's physical and intellectual characteristics against those of individuals residing in the city's asylums, whose status as ‘idiots’ was already established. While in some cases he had advanced skills, especially those needed to survive in nature, Pinel argued in 1801 that most often the wild boy fell behind the standards set by these institutionalized idiots, and concludes that:

inhuman or impoverished parents abandoned the child as incapable of being educated, around the age of nine or ten, some distance from their home, and that the thorn of need drove him to nourish himself with unrefined food that nature put at his disposal, with no other means of judging their health-giving or harmful properties than impressions gained first through the sense of smell and then taste. He seems to have remained a wanderer and a vagabond in the woods, or in the hamlets in the years that followed, constantly reduced to purely animal instinct and occupied solely by the means of finding sustenance and escaping the dangers that threatened him. (Gineste 2004: 356–60)

His final judgement, as already noted, was that the boy ‘must be classed among children suffering from idiocy and dementia, and … there is no real hope for success from continued systematic instruction’ (360).12

Despite Pinel's assessment (and Pinel was the established authority), Jean Itard and Joseph-Marie de Gérando persisted in believing that Condillac's system could enlighten the wild boy and awaken his intellect. De Gérando's interest in the boy was an extension of his interest in non-European cultures. As a member of the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme, de Gérando had presented ‘Considérations sur les diverses methods à suivre dans l'observation des peoples sauvages’ (published in English as The Observation of Savage Peoples), a proto-anthropological guide prepared for Captain Nicolas-Thomas Baudin and François (p.64) Levaillant in advance of their 1800 expedition to Africa; in it, he had entreated that the explorers ‘become particularly acquainted with the methodical signs used so successfully by citizen Sicard to establish his first communication with deaf-mutes. For the deaf-mute is also a savage, and Nature is the only interpreter to translate for him the first lessons of his masters’ (de Gérando 1800: 72). Later, de Gérando notes that important observations could be carried out in Paris, if the right subjects were brought back: ‘We should not finish without recommending to the travellers to bring back for us if they can Savages of both sexes, some adolescent and some infant’, concluding that ‘it would be desirable if a whole family could be persuaded to come back with them. In that case, the individuals composing it, less restricted in their habits and saddened by their losses, would better present their natural character’ (100–1). Such studies would be an exploration of human evolution, argued de Gérando: ‘The philosophical traveller, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact travelling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age’ (63). Noting that ‘our ideas are nothing more than elaborated sensations’, he urged the travellers to pay special attention to what ideas peuples sauvages expressed and how they formed them. The study of ‘primitive’ cultures was meant to shed light on the infancy of ‘advanced’ cultures, just as the study of primitive individuals would illuminate understanding of fully encultured and civilized man. Itard's proposal for the study of the wild boy reflects de Gérando's interest in the extensive observation of other peoples and cultures, foregrounding the link between study of the enfant sauvage and that of peuples sauvages.

Itard, who had studied under Pinel, was in 1800 an ambitious twentysix-year-old who had served on occasion as the physician for students at Sicard's Institution, where he first came into contact with the wild boy. He insisted the child's apparent idiocy was the consequence of intellectual deprivation, as is clear in the Preface to his first report:

If it was proposed to resolve the following metaphysical problem, viz. ‘to determine what would be the degree of understanding, and the nature of the ideas of a youth who, deprived, from his infancy, of all education, should have lived entirely separated from individuals of his species’: I am strangely deceived, or the solution of the problem would give to this individual an understanding connected only with a small number of his wants, and deprived, by his insulated condition, of all those simple and complex ideas which we receive from education, and which are combined in our minds in so many different ways, by means only of our knowledge of signs. Well! the moral picture of this youth would be that of the Savage of Aveyron, and the solution of the problem would give the measure and the cause of his intellectual state. (Itard 1801: 99, original emphasis)

(p.65) The Société decided to give Itard a chance to test his theory, despite Pinel's gloomy prediction that ‘there seems to be no evidence for a more happy outcome in the future’ even with training. On 31 December 1800, the Société formally gave Itard responsibility for the boy, and Sicard created for him the post of resident physician at the Institution Impériale des Sourds-Muets.

Jean Itard and Victor of Aveyron

The debate around the wild boy was not concerned with whether or not it was worthwhile to educate an idiot, as both Pinel and Itard, following Locke, Condillac and the dominant beliefs of their profession, agreed it was not, but rather with the source of the boy's apparent incapacity. The opening paragraph of Itard's first report gives a good sense of his perspective:

Cast on this globe, without physical powers, and without innate ideas; unable by himself to obey the constitutional laws of his organization, which call him to the first rank in the system of being; MAN can only find in the bosom of society the eminent station that was destined for him in nature, and would be, without the aid of civilization, one of the most feeble and least intelligent of animals; – a truth which, although it has often been insisted upon, has not as yet been rigorously demonstrated. (Itard 1801: 91)

This truth Itard intended to demonstrate by educating the boy, whom he named Victor.

Itard based his training programme on the ideas of Condillac, the techniques used by Sicard at L'Institution Impériale des Sourds-Muets, and the concept of ‘moral medicine’ (Itard 1801: 101). He defines five goals for the wild boy's training programme (102):

  1. 1. To attach him to social life, by rendering it more pleasant to him than that which he was then leading, and, above all, more analogous to the mode of existence that he was about to quit.

  2. 2. To awaken the nervous sensibility by the most energetic stimulants, and sometimes by lively affections of the mind.

  3. 3. To extend the sphere of his ideas, by giving him new wants, and by increasing the number of his relations to the objects surrounding him.

  4. 4. To lead him to the use of speech by subjecting him to the necessity of imitation.

  5. 5. To exercise frequently the most simple operations of the mind upon the objects of his physical wants; and, at length, by inducing the application of them to objects of instruction.

(p.66) This programme included a series of activities to train Victor's senses – to develop his responses to hot and cold, for instance; to refine his hearing and visual discrimination; to develop his capacity to receive direction; and, ultimately, to enable him to speak. While Victor never learned to communicate in the way Itard desired, it is clear from the two reports, and from Harlan Lane's comprehensive and insightful analysis of Itard's training regimen, that Victor learned a great deal.

Lane has already done an admirable job of describing and assessing Itard's training programme, so I will not concern myself with this task. My interest lies instead in looking at how Victor, his gouvernante Mme Guérin and Itard himself are developed as characters in a history composed for an audience of professional people – physicians and philosophers, administrators and politicians – whose approval Itard required for the support of both his training programme and his professional reputation. Itard's narrative rests upon his professional commitment to experiment and observation, and is perhaps best characterized as a form of case history. His first report, De l'Éducation d'un homme sauvage ou des premiers développements physiques et moraux du jeune sauvage de l'Aveyron, published in 1801, is organized around his initial attempts to solve the riddles of the human intellect posed by the wild boy. Each of the project's five pedagogical objectives is treated separately, and in increasing detail: while Itard's description of the work carried out to meet the first objective comprises only four paragraphs, the summary of his effort to achieve his fifth and final objective stretches to seventeen paragraphs of considerably longer and more detailed descriptions. Because he had been working with Victor for less than a year when the report was written, he draws only preliminary conclusions: notable among them are the observations that ‘man is inferior to a great number of animals in a pure state of nature’ and that the ‘moral superiority … said to be natural to man, is merely the result of civilization’ (138, original emphasis). He also proposes that ‘the progress of teaching may, and ought to be aided by the lights of modern medicine, which of all the natural sciences can co-operate the most effectually towards the amelioration of the human species, by appreciating the organical and intellectual peculiarities of each individual’ (139). From the very beginnings of what would become ‘special education’, pedagogy and medicine were united.

As a physician, Itard brought the professional concerns of his time to his analysis, and the narrative – essentially a case history – records his various successes and failures in his pedagogical and intellectual quest. The case history format is inherently descriptive and documentary: it describes a problem, a process of treatment and the results of (p.67) this treatment. But the form also involves a heroic, humanitarian quest narrative, as the physician struggles to solve a mystery – that is, the nature of a disease or affliction – and to bring some form of salvation to the patient.13 The objective is not only to provide information but also to elicit sympathy for the physician on his quest – as well as for the focus of his attention, the patient-subject.

Within his narrative, Itard describes not only his training programme but also the more personal intimacies of his relationship to Victor. He plays with Victor; he caresses the boy; throughout the text he displays a deep attachment to his charge. Notably, however, he is also an authority figure, a role that requires distance on his part, especially when compared with Mme Guérin. This household of Victor, Itard and Mme Guérin (M Guérin dies part way through the period covered by Itard's reports) has clear divisions of labour, and these affect Victor's relationship to his tutor:

The friendship he displays for me is much weaker [than for Mme Guérin], as might naturally have been expected. The attentions which Mme Guérin pays him are of such a nature, that their value may be appreciated at the moment; those cares, on the contrary, which I devote to him, are of distant and insensible utility. (Itard 1801: 115)

Itard is quick to point out that the large majority of the time he spends with Victor is linked directly to his goal of education, but that those ‘hours of favourable reception’ – the time with him that Victor actually seems to enjoy – are those ‘which I have never dedicated to his improvement’ (116).

Itard as pedagogue becomes the embodiment of law and rationality. One instance from the second report provides a clear illustration of this role. When Victor runs away and is lost for two weeks, his reunion with Mme Guérin is ‘most touching’:

Victor had barely seen his gouvernante before he turned pale and briefly lost consciousness; but sensing her embrace … he suddenly revived and expressed his joy by shrill cries, convulsive grasping of his hands and a beaming, radiant face. He presented the image, to the eyes of all around, less of a fugitive returned by force to the supervision of his guardian than a loving son who, of his own desire, was throwing himself into the arms of she who had given him life. (Itard 1806: 103)

The anecdote appeals to the sympathetic faculties of Itard's readers with this touching image of the broken family reunited. Of course, Victor is neither a criminal fugitive nor an affectionate son, but rather a ward of the state and the subject of an experiment in philosophy and pedagogy. While the reclaimed Victor is also happy to see Itard, his tutor is careful to instil in the boy a sense of his transgression:

(p.68) Victor was still in bed. As soon as he saw me, he sat up quickly and, leaning forward, offered me his arms. But, seeing that instead of approaching him I remained still, immobile before him, with a cold demeanour and an angry countenance, he hid himself in his bed and, from beneath his covers, began to cry. I heightened his emotions by my reproaches, given in a loud, scolding voice; his tears doubled, accompanying by loud, deep sobs. When I had carried his emotions to their furthest point, I placed myself on the bed of my unhappy penitent. That was always the sign of my forgiveness. Victor understood me, made the first steps toward our reconciliation, and all was forgotten. (Itard 1806: 103)

The point, of course, is that through this self-conscious display of authoritarian wrath, Itard was careful to ensure that, even if all was forgiven, it would not be readily forgotten. The text is replete with other examples of Itard's performative embodiment of the law. On one occasion, he threatens to throw Victor out of a window in order to get the boy to attend to lessons, after several days of trying less dramatic options (Itard 1801: 131–33).

While Itard maintains an authoritative, professorial distance from Victor, Mme Guérin slips into a more conventionally bourgeois maternal role. Her contributions to Victor's education were no doubt many; certainly with regard to the first pedagogical objective, to awaken in Victor a pleasure for the company of people, her importance is paramount. As Itard writes, their strategy is to

treat [Victor] kindly, and to yield a ready compliance to his taste and inclinations. Mme Guérin, to whose particular care the administration [of the Institution] had entrusted this child, acquitted herself, and still discharges this arduous task, with all the patience of a mother, and the intelligence of an enlightened instructor. So far from directly opposing his habits, she knew how, in some measure, to comply with them; and thus to answer the object proposed in our first general head. (Itard 1801: 103)

Itard's four paragraphs in the first report on the boy's growing attachment to the company of others do not relate the specific manner in which Mme Guérin achieves this goal, but rather the bouts of joy and melancholy that characterize Victor. At one point in the section treating the process of developing the boy's socialization with other people, Itard notes how the ‘grand phenomena of Nature’ induce in Victor ‘the quiet expression of sorrow and melancholy’:

I have often stopped for whole hours together, and, with unspeakable pleasure, to examine him in this situation; to observe how all his convulsive motions, and that continual rocking of his whole body diminished, and by degrees subsided, to give place to a more tranquil attitude; and how insensibly his face, insignificant or distorted as it might be, took the well-defined character of sorrow, or melancholy reverie, in proportion (p.69) as his eyes were steadily fixed on the surface of the water, and when he threw into it, from time to time, some remains of withered leaves. When, in a moon-light night, the rays of that luminary penetrated into his room, he seldom failed to awake out of his sleep, and to place himself before the window. There he remained, during a part of the night, standing motionless, his neck extended, his eyes fixed toward the country illuminated by the moon, and carried away in a sort of contemplative extasy, the silence of which was interrupted only by deep-drawn inspirations, after considerable intervals, and which were always accompanied with a feeble and plaintive sound. (Itard 1801: 104)

Itard goes on to note that ‘it would have been as useless, as inhuman, to oppose these habits’: instead, he allows Victor to continue them in order to ‘associate them with his new existence, and thus render it more agreeable to him’ (Itard 1801: 104). It is presumably this longing for the forest which stands in the way of Victor's socialization unless it is transformed into the more acceptable (and even desirable) form of melancholy, thus leading to Itard's inclusion of this passage in his description of the treatment for rendering social life more acceptable and pleasant to Victor. Itard's characterization of Victor here finds some common ground with the solitude and melancholy of Mary Robinson's ‘The Savage of Aveyron’, discussed above, in that Victor is also apparently longing for a lost world, his life before capture. Itard's interpretations are strikingly distinct from those Virey makes regarding the boy's inability to see beauty or God in nature. In his second report, Itard reiterates this type of observation. For example, as Victor drinks his water ‘like an exquisite liqueur’ at the end of a meal, he

stands by the window, eyes turned toward the countryside, as if, in this delectable instant, he seeks to reunite the two pleasures which alone survive the loss of his freedom: a drink of pure water and the vision of the sun and the countryside. (Itard 1806: 76)

There is also a certain slippage of scientific explanation that becomes clear when we look at the role played by gender in giving shape to socialized man. ‘Civilization, in multiplying his sorrows, also necessarily elevates his joy’, writes Itard, citing as evidence ‘the zeal he demonstrates and the pleasure he finds in doing things for the people he loves and even in anticipating their desires with those small services he is capable of. One can see this especially in his relations with Madame Guérin’ (Itard 1806: 104–5). Victor's much underplayed relationship with Mme Guérin is not treated in any depth by Itard, seemingly because of its lack of critical and philosophical interest. However, this omission belies another belief: that the bonds of woman and child are natural, while those of man and child are rational. (p.70) Presumably Victor already has the capacity to form links with the housekeeper because his natural state would not exclude it. The skills that Itard seeks to instil are of a different order. Civilization, it would seem, is a masculine condition.

The assumption that the natural child forms an automatic bond with his female ‘keeper’ reasserts the link between femininity and idiocy evident in Wordsworth's ‘The Idiot Boy’ (Chapter 2). Victor's assimilation into the world of Mme Guérin requires no analysis, according to the young physician; her success with her component of his education is, in Itard's representation, not due to pedagogical strategies or specific modes of interaction so much as to an innate capacity, an understanding of Victor's needs. Mme Guérin's official role in Victor's education is restricted to awakening in him a pleasure in human company, a project which would seem, according to Itard's narrative, to require the development of feeling but not necessarily of rational intellect. Thus, she does not arouse Victor's intelligence but renders him friendlier and more pliable: like Johnny Foy or, later, Dickens' Barnaby Rudge. Intellect, on the other hand, is a masculine responsibility. Thus, Itard's role is as progenitor of rationality, of the law of civilized man; a child without such influence in his life risks becoming tractable but irrational.

The melancholic wild boy

There is more going on in Itard's reports than detached scientific observation, and I suspect it is connected to the sense of solitude and melancholy that Mary Robinson develops in ‘The Savage of Aveyron’ – a romantic nostalgia, glancing back upon an abandoned world. Robinson's ‘savage’ recalls, if only dimly, his existence before his mother was slain in the woods, and his tragic melancholy stems from his longing for that distant and obscure time. Victor's melancholia, as Itard understands it, is rooted in a desire for his lost existence in the forest, which is becoming an increasingly faint memory.14 In both cases, though, the writer develops a sentimental framework that would be easily understood according to the literary conventions of the day. In a very important sense, Itard's version of Victor is a literary creation as well as a psychological and philosophical one.

One of the most notable expressions of this literary impulse can be found in the name the teacher gives his charge. Itard writes that he named the boy ‘Victor’ because the child responded happily to the ‘O’ sound at the end of that word (Itard 1801: 119). However, as (p.71) Thierry Gineste has pointed out, ‘in reality, the origin of the name is more simple, more poetic, even more eloquent’ (Gineste 2004: 52). François-Guillaume Ducray-Duminil had published a novel entitled Victor, l'enfant de la forêt in 1796, a circumstance of which Itard could hardly have been ignorant, especially as the novel was turned into a play by Guibert and Pixerécourt and had been playing to full houses in three Parisian theatres simultaneously at the time the wild boy of Aveyron was brought to Paris. It was among the biggest theatrical hits of the day. The success of the play had even spawned a popular song, ‘La romance de l'enfant de la forêt, au moment où il quitte Clémence’, in which the narrator, Victor the forest child himself, leaves behind the woman he loves.15 The novel, and the play based on it, tell the story of a child, found in a cradle in the forest by the Baron Fritzierne, who grows up with the Baron's family and falls in love with Clémence, the Baron's daughter, whom he believes to be his sister. As the story opens, the young protagonist Victor is contemplating leaving the chalet where he has been raised in order to avoid the pangs of his incestuous desires, but very soon he will learn that he and Clémence are not siblings, that the feelings he must repress are in fact legitimate before morality and law, that Clémence feels the same way and that, indeed, the Baron has hoped to promote a union between his daughter and the child he had found in the forest. Much of the story is told in narrative flashbacks, with characters recounting their histories, and Victor and his stepfather eventually learn that the boy's natural father is Roger, the leader of a group of outlaws living in the forest whom Victor had come close to slaying. The Baron demands that Victor earn the hand of Clémence by converting Roger from his life of crime to an honest but obscure existence; Roger proves immovable, however, and eventually Victor leaves in despair. Clémence, too, runs away, to become a nun, and the Baron grows heartsick, searching for his daughter, regretting the demands he had placed on Victor, and finally dying before he meets either again. In the end, of course, Victor and Clémence are reunited, but not before Victor has a moving reunion with Roger just before the execution of the latter, when both are in prison (Victor under suspicion as the son of the dangerous bandit): ‘You will be free, Victor’, Roger reassures his son. ‘You will set out again on your road, on which you have laboured with so much toil. Don't forget my example’ (Ducray-Duminil 1796: vol. III, 86). At the novel's conclusion, we are told that ‘the misfortunes of Victor, his birth, and all his adventures’ had been trumpeted through the land, and were impossible for him to put aside; there were still those who dismissed him as the son of an outlaw (vol. III, 105), but in the end Victor and Clémence live long and happily.

(p.72) The story thus contains plenty of crowd-pleasing familial drama of the incestuous and oedipal sort. Gineste (2004: 52) suggests that at the root of the story's success one could find:

the stories around the fate of the young Louis XVII, said to have escaped death by fleeing his imprisonment in the Temple and to be living hidden in the forest, awaiting better days and his eventual return to the throne. These rumours were witness to a collective guilt over the murder of a royal infant, a representative of God, which explains in large part the subject and popularity of the play and, in fact, the wild boy himself.

Thus, the young Louis, a lost child of exalted lineage, via the fictional Victor, becomes the historical Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, for whom Itard also hoped to reclaim the full splendour of patrimony: that is, rationality and full inclusion in human society. Itard's responsibility with his wild boy is much the same as that of those loyal retainers rumoured to be raising the infant king in the woods of France.16

We can add to Gineste's reading by noting that in Ducray-Duminil's novel, Victor is merely the son of a bandit but, significantly, his upbringing has raised him far above the state of his father. The portrayal of Victor in the novel expresses the belief that education is all; his father may have been a criminal, but he, thanks to his tutelage under his faithful instructor Valentine in the chalet of Baron Fritzierne, is an honourable man, one who earns the respect of others by his honesty, candour and courage. It is not difficult to see in this aspect of the fictional Victor's makeup the outcome Itard must have desired for his own forest child. The fictional Victor overcomes his inauspicious parenthood because of his education, which then prepares him to face continual adversity throughout the course of the novel, much as Itard hoped to see Victor of Aveyron overcome his blighted youth and take on the role and responsibilities of a rational man. But this trajectory Itard imagined for his pupil is formed around a profoundly romantic, sentimental narrative. The intellectual problems posed by Victor – and the challenges of understanding and delineating that slippery concept ‘human nature’ – seem, on occasion, too immense to be contained by the theories employed by Itard and his compatriots, even in their official reports, and on these occasions Victor slips into the realm of poetry and romance.17

Itard's fruitful failure

By the time of his second report, Rapport fait à son Excellence le Ministre de l'Intérieur, sur les nouveaux développements et l'état actuel du sauvage de l'Aveyron, written in 1806 at the request of the Minister of the Interior, (p.73) Itard is uncomfortably aware of what he viewed as his failure. ‘My Lord’, he opens the second report, ‘To speak to you of the Wild Boy of Aveyron is to utter a name that no longer inspires any interest; it is to recall a being forgotten by those who saw him for a time only, and disdained by those who thought to judge him’ (Itard 1806: 63). He goes on to claim that he ‘would have wrapped in a profound silence and condemned to eternal oblivion an undertaking that is less the story of the student's progress than that of the teacher's failure’ (63–64) – a profoundly different tone from that pervading the first report and, interestingly, a marked opposition to the ‘glee’ with which Wordsworth wrote of his own composition of ‘The Idiot Boy’. While Itard does include the proviso that ‘to appreciate the current state of the young man, it is necessary to recall his former state’ (64), his second narrative is marked by greater hesitation, a distraught sense of his own ambivalent accomplishments. Victor is not only an ‘disgraced being’ and the ‘refuse of nature’ (64) but also a failed experiment, a being whom society could not fully embrace, and Itard divides the share of blame between his own failings and Victor's initial deprivations. Itard's goal had been to reproduce Condillac's thought experiment, replacing the statue with the wild boy, and to lead the boy from mute ignorance to reflective, contemplative language – much as Sicard had apparently done with his deaf students. He is also, in some sense, seeking to recreate Ducray-Dumenil's Victor, l'enfant de la fôret in his efforts to build a romantic narrative leading not to the joyous reunion of the protagonist with his beloved, but to an even more profound reconciliation of the wild boy with humanity and civilization. But Victor's needs and abilities are not aligned with Itard's ambition, and the forms of communication that the boy does learn to use – signs, sounds and gestures – are not those that his tutor sought to develop. The heroic quest implicit in a case history would make Victor either the beneficiary of his patron's talents, had Itard fulfilled his objectives, or, as in this opposite case, reconstruct Victor as an object of compassion, who remains blighted by intellectual darkness despite the best efforts of the struggling yet valiant physician. Such a reading, although not necessarily intended by the author, is an inevitable outcome of the narrative form employed; it is also a narrative trajectory that repeats itself throughout professional writings on idiocy in the nineteenth century.

Describing a particularly difficult training session with his charge, he writes ‘I was ready to renounce my self-imposed task and look on the time I had spent on it as lost, to regret having known this child, and to condemn the cold and inhuman curiosity of the men who uprooted him from an innocent, happy life!’ (Itard 1806: 170–71). He concludes (p.74) ambivalently that ‘many of the facts indicate that he could be improved, while others suggest the contrary’ (113). He then enumerates his findings: first of all, ‘because of the nearly complete incapacity of the organs of hearing and speech, the young man's education will remain incomplete’; further, ‘because of a long period of inactivity, his intellectual faculties are developing slowly and with great difficulty’. The emotions, too, are ‘emerging with the same sluggishness from their long period of sleep’, which Itard suggests ‘seems only to prove that, if there exists a relationship between the needs of his senses and the affections of his heart, this sympathetic harmony is, as with most grand and generous passions, the fortunate fruit of his education’ (Itard 1806: 113–14). On the more favourable side, though, he notes:

1. that the improvement of sight and touch, and the new enjoyment of taste, have, in multiplying the sensations and ideas of our Savage, contributed powerfully to the development of his intellectual faculties; 2. that, in considering his general development, we find, among other happy changes, improvements in the knowledge of conventional meaning of symbols of thought, the ability to apply this knowledge to designating objects and describing their qualities and actions, from whence the range of relationships of the student with the people around him, his faculty of expressing his needs, receiving orders and engaging in a free and ongoing exchange of thought; 3. that, in spite of his immoderate taste for the freedom of fields and his indifference for most of the pleasures of social life, Victor shows himself to be grateful for the care taken of him, responsive to affectionate friendship, sensitive to the pleasure of doing well, ashamed of his errors, and repentant of his outbursts…. (Itard 1806: 114–15)

Then, in the last clause of this long list of Victor's accomplishments at the end of the second report, Itard argues his charge's claim to continued support from the state:

4. finally, my Lord, from whatever perspective one views this long experiment, whether one considers it the systematic education of a wild man or the physical and moral treatment of a being disgraced by nature, rejected by society, and abandoned by medicine, the care that has been taken of him, the care still to come, the voice of humanity, the interest aroused by so complete a desertion and so bizarre a destiny, all recommend this extraordinary young man to the attention of scientists, to the solicitude of our administrators and the protection of the Government. (Itard 1806: 115)

Itard's call for compassion – the voice of humanity – and his claim for support are made more complex and startling by a concession: against his earlier assertions of Victor's latent abilities, he accepts that Victor may have been ‘disgraced by nature’ – that is, born without the full (p.75) range of potential allotted to most beings. This admission has profound implications for the treatment of idiots, as it runs counter to the psychological truism that idiots – those ‘disgraced by nature’ – could not learn. Itard's experiments may not have yielded the fully reclaimed social and moral being that the pedagogue had desired, but they still transformed the enfant sauvage into a young man with the ability to communicate basic ideas and desires and to form friendships. While Itard does not go so far as to designate Victor an ‘idiot’, he does allow the possibility. Itard eventually abandoned his efforts to educate Victor, who continued to live with Mme Guérin until his death in 1828, when he was probably in his forties; Itard died ten years later, in 1838.

Despite the fact that he considered his pedagogical attempts to be failures, Itard's experiments with Victor were to initiate a slow alteration in the meaning of idiocy, transforming it into a condition that might be relieved. But this change in the understanding of idiocy also subverted some long-held notions. Into the Edenic innocence of the idiot's mind Itard and Victor had brought the fruit of knowledge. And if idiocy is a state that can and thus should be overcome, how can ‘innocence’ be ascribed to the condition?

Before examining the transformation of the concept of idiocy in the nineteenth century, though, we must digress through the broader issue of gender and intellectual disability. In Wordsworth's ‘The Idiot Boy’ and in Itard's reports, the ‘idiot’ or ‘wild’ boy exists primarily in relation to a family environment. In the poem, this family is natural, although fatherless; in Victor's case, the natural family is replaced by a surrogate family formed by Itard and Mme Guérin. Victor's family is investigative, experimental; it is part of a project ultimately seeking to redress the weaknesses apparent in the natural family described by Wordsworth, where the maternal dominates over patriarchal rationality. This relation of idiocy to gender will be explored more fully in the next two chapters.

Notes

(1) De Gérando's article, presented before the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme in 1801 (Gineste 2004: 418), was discovered among his papers after his death and published posthumously in 1848.

(2) Je veux enricher aujourd'hui

La médecine et la physique

Souffrez que je fasse sur lui

Quelque recherche anatomique,

Me croirait-il mauvais dessein?

L'effroi se peint sur sa figure!

Aurait-il peur d'un médecin?

(p.76)

(3) In more recent years, narratives have moved closer to the historical record. The most famous, of course, is François Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant Sauvage, in which Truffaut himself plays the role of Jean Itard. The film plays upon the union of wild and civilized man; but with the director in a lead role, we can also read the relation between Itard and his charge as being a metaphor of artistic creation – the teacher/artist crafting a civilized human from raw materials.

(4) Robinson employs a metrical structure reminiscent of Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan’ (which, as a friend of Coleridge, she was familiar with) and it is not too far a stretch to imagine that she is striving after the same uncanny, mystical romanticism achieved by that poem.

(5) Itard's first report was translated into English and published in London in 1802 as An Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man, or of the First Developments, Physical and Moral, of the Young Savage Caught in the Woods near Aveyron in the year 1798. Quotations from the first report are from this 1802 translation, while those from the 1806 report have been translated here by Rhonda Mullins; the 1802 translation was republished by NLB in 1972 in a volume with Lucien Malson's Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature (1964).

(6) The orang-utan was formed in the European mind by a mixture of travellers' tales of exotic men and the occasional specimen brought back by explorers. George-Louis Leclerc, Comte du Buffon, suggested that orang-utans, while apes (singes), were ‘a more perfect species and even closer to the human species’ (Buffon 1855: 24). The figures illustrating his description of the orangutan show both large and small (pongo and jocko) versions standing upright and leaning on staffs, looking like especially hirsute shepherds. James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, went further, suggesting that the Pope should do for the orang-utan what he had done ‘for the humanity of the poor Americans’ and issue a papal bull decreeing that ‘the Orang Outangs are men’ (Monboddo 1774: 347). That Linnaeus called them ‘troglodytes’ – or cave dwellers – and Bontius designated them ‘Homo sylvestris’ – men of the forest – suggests just how little consensus existed about these primates.

(7) My analysis of Locke owes a great deal to Chris Goodey's writings on Locke and idiocy. See especially ‘John Locke's idiots’, ‘The psychopolitics of learning and disability’ and ‘From natural disability to the moral man’ (Goodey 1994, 1996, 2001); I have attempted to condense Goodey's arguments, although anyone interested in the history of rationality and idiocy should seek out these articles for themselves.

(8) ‘Natural’ was an established synonym for ‘idiot’, with its first recorded reference dating to 1533, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; ‘changeling’ was a term used both in common and in professional parlance to refer to an ‘idiot’ born to normal parents (Goodey 1994: 230; for more on the history of the idea of the changeling, see Goodey and Stainton 2001). The ‘drill’ referred to is Mandrillus leucophaeus, a close relation to the baboon.

(9) Other examples can be used to supplement the Lockean instance. Linnaeus admitted that the category ‘Homo’ should probably be subsumed under that of ‘Primate’, but had them as parallel categories all the same. Monboddo's orang-utans are human because he needed a non-lingual human community to support his theory of language acquisition. He had never actually seen an orang-utan, although he had seen a stuffed ape (most likely a chimpanzee); he relied on the notoriously unreliable tales of travellers for his information.

(10) The retreating natural world so influential to romantic evocations of nature may also have heightened the desire to find a ‘natural man’, as feral children (p.77) would be seen as a vanishing resource in a Europe where the forests were disappearing. The loss of nature could also threaten the loss of Homo feri.

(11) The most famous feral human before the wild boy of Aveyron was Marie-Angélique Memmie LeBlanc, or, as she was originally known, the wild girl of Champagne. Caught in 1731, the girl attracted the attention of writers and scientists across Europe; she eventually learned language, was christened by her domesticators, met with Lord Monboddo, and was miraculously transformed into a Catholic nun, before eventually leaving the convent. Her final years are obscure, as is her date of death; some sources have her alive for only forty years, while others give her sixty (Douthwaite 1994/95: 166; Newton 2002). ‘Wild children’ have continued to appear sporadically since the arrival of Victor; see Douglas Candland's Feral Children and Clever Animals (1993) for an overview of the phenomenon into the twentieth century.

(12) Many readers have supplied their own diagnoses of Victor's state. Most notably in recent years, Uta Frith (1989: 16–26) has argued in detail that he was autistic; Nicolas Pethes (2003) tosses off the same diagnosis – simply referring to the boy as ‘autistic’ – as if it were an established truth. Lane (1976: 179) has suggested that ‘Victor's symptoms … may overlap with those of congenital retardation or autism, but are explained by neither; instead they are the result of his isolation in the wild, as Itard maintained all along’. Of course, Lane's book, published in 1976, predates autism's transformation into a spectrum disorder, and thus he is working with a much more restrictive definition of the term than that available to Frith. Lucien Malson, writing in 1964, stresses that Victor's supposedly ‘innate idiocy cannot be proved’ and concludes that ‘there is no reason to suggest that he suffered from some defect at birth and indeed all the evidence points to the contrary’ (79); however, Malson does not summarize this evidence.

(13) As Rita Charon observes in her analysis of modern case histories, ‘medicine, committed to recapturing a lost ideal state [that of complete health and wholeness], is … a heroic and conservative undertaking’ (Charon 1992: 119), a ‘platonic longing for well-proportioned truth and beauty’ (120) that is destined to be unrequited; thus there is an apologetic or melancholic note to many case histories. ‘The response being sought from the readers of the case is not so often praise as forgiveness’ (121). In the eighteenth century, argues Thomas Laqueur, ‘a particular cluster of humanitarian narratives’, including the novel as well as the case history, ‘created “sympathetic passions”’ that ‘bridged the gap between facts, compassion, and action’ (Laqueur 1990: 179). Some of these narratives were intended specifically to elicit compassion or stimulate reform, but that consequence was linked not solely to content but also to form: ‘certain sorts of stories, whatever their purpose, have the capacity to engender the kind of moral concern that arose in the late eighteenth century’ (197). Just as Wordsworth had sought to engage sympathy for the story of Johnny and Betty Foy (Chapter 2), so does Itard try to elicit readers' compassion for Victor and for his own role in attempting to educate his enfant sauvage.

(14) Itard's ‘nature’ assumes the same position as Robinson's ‘mother’ in their versions of a wild boy's melancholic desires, a point which is significant for our understanding of the gender associations common to representations of idiocy (to be discussed in Chapters 4 and 5).

(15) This song was directly referred to by the contemporary journalist Feydel in the fifth of his series of articles on l'enfant sauvage, ‘Qu'est-ce que le sauvage de l'Aveyron’, published on 14 October 1800 (see Gineste 2004: 53).

(16) Similar suspicions abound in the case of Kaspar Hauser, who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, and was thought by some to be connected to the royal (p.78) house of Baden. For more information, see Kaspar Hauser: Europe's Child, by Martin Kitchen (2001).

(17) Victor was not the only wild child to have a literary alter ego. Julie Douthwaite (1994/95: 173) recounts a passage from Jean-Claude Gorjy's 1789 novel Victorine, in which the eponymous heroine meets a ‘wild woman’ in a scene reminiscent of that in which the wild girl of Champagne, Marie-Angelique LeBlanc, was discovered; LeBlanc was also the subject of an anonymously penned biography, Histoire d'une jeune fille sauvage trouvée dans les bois à l'âge de dix ans, and of Louis Racine's ‘Eclaircissement sur la fille sauvage’. And, of course, Kaspar Hauser has been the subject of much literary treatment, most notably Werner Herzog's 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, but also Jakob Wassermann's 1908 novel Caspar Hauser or the Inertia of the Heart.

Notes:

(1) De Gérando's article, presented before the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme in 1801 (Gineste 2004: 418), was discovered among his papers after his death and published posthumously in 1848.

(2) Je veux enricher aujourd'hui

La médecine et la physique

Souffrez que je fasse sur lui

Quelque recherche anatomique,

Me croirait-il mauvais dessein?

L'effroi se peint sur sa figure!

Aurait-il peur d'un médecin?

(3) In more recent years, narratives have moved closer to the historical record. The most famous, of course, is François Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant Sauvage, in which Truffaut himself plays the role of Jean Itard. The film plays upon the union of wild and civilized man; but with the director in a lead role, we can also read the relation between Itard and his charge as being a metaphor of artistic creation – the teacher/artist crafting a civilized human from raw materials.

(4) Robinson employs a metrical structure reminiscent of Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan’ (which, as a friend of Coleridge, she was familiar with) and it is not too far a stretch to imagine that she is striving after the same uncanny, mystical romanticism achieved by that poem.

(5) Itard's first report was translated into English and published in London in 1802 as An Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man, or of the First Developments, Physical and Moral, of the Young Savage Caught in the Woods near Aveyron in the year 1798. Quotations from the first report are from this 1802 translation, while those from the 1806 report have been translated here by Rhonda Mullins; the 1802 translation was republished by NLB in 1972 in a volume with Lucien Malson's Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature (1964).

(6) The orang-utan was formed in the European mind by a mixture of travellers' tales of exotic men and the occasional specimen brought back by explorers. George-Louis Leclerc, Comte du Buffon, suggested that orang-utans, while apes (singes), were ‘a more perfect species and even closer to the human species’ (Buffon 1855: 24). The figures illustrating his description of the orangutan show both large and small (pongo and jocko) versions standing upright and leaning on staffs, looking like especially hirsute shepherds. James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, went further, suggesting that the Pope should do for the orang-utan what he had done ‘for the humanity of the poor Americans’ and issue a papal bull decreeing that ‘the Orang Outangs are men’ (Monboddo 1774: 347). That Linnaeus called them ‘troglodytes’ – or cave dwellers – and Bontius designated them ‘Homo sylvestris’ – men of the forest – suggests just how little consensus existed about these primates.

(7) My analysis of Locke owes a great deal to Chris Goodey's writings on Locke and idiocy. See especially ‘John Locke's idiots’, ‘The psychopolitics of learning and disability’ and ‘From natural disability to the moral man’ (Goodey 1994, 1996, 2001); I have attempted to condense Goodey's arguments, although anyone interested in the history of rationality and idiocy should seek out these articles for themselves.

(8) ‘Natural’ was an established synonym for ‘idiot’, with its first recorded reference dating to 1533, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; ‘changeling’ was a term used both in common and in professional parlance to refer to an ‘idiot’ born to normal parents (Goodey 1994: 230; for more on the history of the idea of the changeling, see Goodey and Stainton 2001). The ‘drill’ referred to is Mandrillus leucophaeus, a close relation to the baboon.

(9) Other examples can be used to supplement the Lockean instance. Linnaeus admitted that the category ‘Homo’ should probably be subsumed under that of ‘Primate’, but had them as parallel categories all the same. Monboddo's orang-utans are human because he needed a non-lingual human community to support his theory of language acquisition. He had never actually seen an orang-utan, although he had seen a stuffed ape (most likely a chimpanzee); he relied on the notoriously unreliable tales of travellers for his information.

(10) The retreating natural world so influential to romantic evocations of nature may also have heightened the desire to find a ‘natural man’, as feral children (p.77) would be seen as a vanishing resource in a Europe where the forests were disappearing. The loss of nature could also threaten the loss of Homo feri.

(11) The most famous feral human before the wild boy of Aveyron was Marie-Angélique Memmie LeBlanc, or, as she was originally known, the wild girl of Champagne. Caught in 1731, the girl attracted the attention of writers and scientists across Europe; she eventually learned language, was christened by her domesticators, met with Lord Monboddo, and was miraculously transformed into a Catholic nun, before eventually leaving the convent. Her final years are obscure, as is her date of death; some sources have her alive for only forty years, while others give her sixty (Douthwaite 1994/95: 166; Newton 2002). ‘Wild children’ have continued to appear sporadically since the arrival of Victor; see Douglas Candland's Feral Children and Clever Animals (1993) for an overview of the phenomenon into the twentieth century.

(12) Many readers have supplied their own diagnoses of Victor's state. Most notably in recent years, Uta Frith (1989: 16–26) has argued in detail that he was autistic; Nicolas Pethes (2003) tosses off the same diagnosis – simply referring to the boy as ‘autistic’ – as if it were an established truth. Lane (1976: 179) has suggested that ‘Victor's symptoms … may overlap with those of congenital retardation or autism, but are explained by neither; instead they are the result of his isolation in the wild, as Itard maintained all along’. Of course, Lane's book, published in 1976, predates autism's transformation into a spectrum disorder, and thus he is working with a much more restrictive definition of the term than that available to Frith. Lucien Malson, writing in 1964, stresses that Victor's supposedly ‘innate idiocy cannot be proved’ and concludes that ‘there is no reason to suggest that he suffered from some defect at birth and indeed all the evidence points to the contrary’ (79); however, Malson does not summarize this evidence.

(13) As Rita Charon observes in her analysis of modern case histories, ‘medicine, committed to recapturing a lost ideal state [that of complete health and wholeness], is … a heroic and conservative undertaking’ (Charon 1992: 119), a ‘platonic longing for well-proportioned truth and beauty’ (120) that is destined to be unrequited; thus there is an apologetic or melancholic note to many case histories. ‘The response being sought from the readers of the case is not so often praise as forgiveness’ (121). In the eighteenth century, argues Thomas Laqueur, ‘a particular cluster of humanitarian narratives’, including the novel as well as the case history, ‘created “sympathetic passions”’ that ‘bridged the gap between facts, compassion, and action’ (Laqueur 1990: 179). Some of these narratives were intended specifically to elicit compassion or stimulate reform, but that consequence was linked not solely to content but also to form: ‘certain sorts of stories, whatever their purpose, have the capacity to engender the kind of moral concern that arose in the late eighteenth century’ (197). Just as Wordsworth had sought to engage sympathy for the story of Johnny and Betty Foy (Chapter 2), so does Itard try to elicit readers' compassion for Victor and for his own role in attempting to educate his enfant sauvage.

(14) Itard's ‘nature’ assumes the same position as Robinson's ‘mother’ in their versions of a wild boy's melancholic desires, a point which is significant for our understanding of the gender associations common to representations of idiocy (to be discussed in Chapters 4 and 5).

(15) This song was directly referred to by the contemporary journalist Feydel in the fifth of his series of articles on l'enfant sauvage, ‘Qu'est-ce que le sauvage de l'Aveyron’, published on 14 October 1800 (see Gineste 2004: 53).

(16) Similar suspicions abound in the case of Kaspar Hauser, who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, and was thought by some to be connected to the royal (p.78) house of Baden. For more information, see Kaspar Hauser: Europe's Child, by Martin Kitchen (2001).

(17) Victor was not the only wild child to have a literary alter ego. Julie Douthwaite (1994/95: 173) recounts a passage from Jean-Claude Gorjy's 1789 novel Victorine, in which the eponymous heroine meets a ‘wild woman’ in a scene reminiscent of that in which the wild girl of Champagne, Marie-Angelique LeBlanc, was discovered; LeBlanc was also the subject of an anonymously penned biography, Histoire d'une jeune fille sauvage trouvée dans les bois à l'âge de dix ans, and of Louis Racine's ‘Eclaircissement sur la fille sauvage’. And, of course, Kaspar Hauser has been the subject of much literary treatment, most notably Werner Herzog's 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, but also Jakob Wassermann's 1908 novel Caspar Hauser or the Inertia of the Heart.