Venus Hottentot and the Irony of Science

By Sean Carroll | December 22, 2008 10:49 am

One of the other good choices made by Obama’s inaugural planners was inviting Elizabeth Alexander to compose and deliver a poem. It’s not a well-established tradition. Only two other Presidents have featured poets at their inaugurations: John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. And, of course, the mere mention of “poetry” gives folks an opportunity to burnish their anti-intellectual credentials by pulling excerpts out of context and proudly proclaiming that they don’t get it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates reprints Alexander’s best-known poem: The Venus Hottentot (1825). The title refers to Saartjie Baartman, an African woman who was brought to Europe in 1810, where she was exhibited in circuses and at private salons for the wealthy.

Saartjie Baartman

Baartman’s exotic physique and Khoikhoi ethnicity pushed all sorts of buttons in late Georgian England, where social reform movements jostled with the excitement of empire and a fascination with the Dark Continent. She died in Paris in 1815, where she was examined and dissected by naturalist Georges Cuvier, who later wrote articles arguing that the form of her labia was evidence of the primitive sexual appetite of African women. Baartman’s skeleton, brains and genitals were put on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974, when they were removed and put in storage; in 2002 her remains were repatriated to South Africa, where she was buried in the Gamtoos Valley.

Alexander’s poem is extremely moving, a mediation on a meditation on power and hope and rage, building to the devastating final lines:

If he were to let me rise up

from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.

My first reaction, however, was more exasperation than admiration. The poem opens in the voice of Georges Cuvier:

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

You can guess where that’s going to go. Of all the things the world needs right now, “more mockery of science by humanities-oriented intellectuals” is not one of them. Yes, yes, we know: science is cold, and clinical, and dehumanizing. It also gave us penicillin, not to mention Mentos & Diet Coke, so cut some slack, okay? At the end of the day, anti-intellectualism is still anti-intellectualism.

But upon reflection, I decided that my first reaction was unfair. As Hilzoy very astutely points out, the poem’s opening in Cuvier’s voice is honestly beautiful and affecting, where it could have been nothing more than sarcastic. The beauty of science can coexist with a shriveled heart.

More importantly, as scientists we need to be able to take a little honest critique now and then and learn from it. Although anti-science attitudes within the humanities can often be little more than a cheap pose, that doesn’t mean that science shouldn’t ever be examined critically. Georges Cuvier’s crazy theories (he was also wrong about elephants, evolution, and continental drift, but did have some good ideas about dinosaurs) are just as much a part of the history of science as Newton or Darwin. And the impulses behind them are as real today as they ever were.

It’s a cliche, but science is a human endeavor, and individual scientists are human beings. Scientific theories stand independently from their originators, but the process of science and the motivations of its practitioners are neither more or less lofty, on average, than most other human activities. The great thing about science is that, in the long run, empirical realities always win; if your theories aren’t right, they can’t survive. But the long run can be pretty long, and in the short run there is a temptation to dress up one’s prejudices in the apparent objectivity of scientific practice. In ideal circumstances, the harsh testing ground of experiment should keep us from drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by the data; but that’s a goal to which we aspire, not a virtue we are granted automatically by our lab coats and fancy math.

Using the size of an African woman’s labia to draw conclusions about their primitive sexual appetites is no more sensibly “scientific” than believing that the proportion of women working as professional scientists (at this precise moment in history, in this precise part of the world) is a direct consequence of an underlying distribution of innate talents, unmediated by social factors. But there is no shortage of people who sincerely think that way. And the long run is sometimes longer than it needs to be.

Text of the poem below the fold.

The Venus Hottentot (1825)
Elizabeth Alexander

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d though
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope.

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

picking jar in the Musee
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.

2.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have no forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from his table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words
  • http://critterscrap.blogspot.com Jerry Critter

    It is interesting that the only two presidents to have a poet at their inauguration are Democrats. Of course, why am I not surprised?

  • http://glassbottomblog.blogspot.com/ sarang

    I’m closer to your original reaction. There’s a lot of fine writing in part ii., but the Cuvier soliloquy reads as boilerplate, and isn’t even well-written. (“perfect angles / of geometry I’d thought / impossible”? Ugh.) Ironically, the poem would’ve been less anti-intellectual without its first part; while it’s reasonable for the V.H. to equate “geometric” with “deformed,” it’s irritating that the author endorses it, and the vague gesture at objectivity serves to make the endorsement stronger than it would have been in a dramatic monologue.

  • Sili

    Not to belittle poetry, but I don’t think I’ll ever ‘get’ it.

    In this case I just go: “But why break the lines in the middle of the thought? It makes it harder to read.”

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I heartily endorse the view that human failings can be corrected for by subjecting theories and hypotheses to the rigors of experimental attack, and hence the possibility of falsification. This, of course, makes science the most reliable of methods for learning about the universe.

    I’m not sure if this is the point you’re making, but I would disagree that hypothesizing about innate human abilities, or the relationships between anatomy and behavior, need fundamentally be unscientific, no matter how politically sensitive or potentially hurtful the line of questioning might be. I think the problem arises when the hypotheses are untestable, disproven, or countered with equally-plausible alternative hypotheses, yet the discredited ideas are still promoted.

    This is problem hardly limited to preserving the phallocracy, I’ve observed.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Nice post, and I welcome poetry at the inauguration (not that that’s relevant, since I am not a US citizen). However, I hope it is not along the lines of

    If he were to let me rise up
    from this table, I’d spirit
    his knives and cut out his black heart,

    Given that this is the first black president, this may be considered somewhat inflammatory.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B

    Anyone wondering the tech. term for the main element of Baartman’s “exotic physique”: steatopygia. It is indeed vulgar that this woman was focused on as a “form” to perplex and gawk over, but then again consider the many admissions by conservative admirers of Sarah Palin: they got a kick out of her looks, and that motivated much of their interest in her.

  • http://www.opiniondominion.blogspot.com steve from brisbane

    Your plea against anti-intellectualism (a form of bigotry, isn’t it?) might be better received if you yourself didn’t always run with claims of bigotry against every person who does not agree with the socially novel idea of gay marriage.

  • Benjamin

    Steve from Brisbane,

    That doesn’t really make sense. To say that opposing anti-intellectualism is bigotry is a very big leap which needs some serious justification, and this seems like just a way to derail the thread. We live in a society defined by the Enlightenment and our liberty, and disallowing gay marriage is a bizarre restriction on that, imposed for no more legitimate reason than the bigotry you deny.

    As for the poem – humanities vs science irritates me, especially because I study both and shall continue doing so. I miss the way Plautus or Huxley would mix observation of the real world as well as of society, without having the strange non-overlaping-magisteria model of science and arts which seem to predominate today.

  • http://www.opiniondominion.blogspot.com steve from brisbane

    Benjamin. Put it this way: Sean warns against reflexive anti-intellectualism from the humanities towards science. Criticism is fine, he acknowledges, but his arguments calls for some basic respect for the achievements of science and nuanced appreciation of it as a human endeavour. Fine.

    But when it comes to an element of the humanities (religion and moral philosophy,) I don’t see a lot of the same attitude in Sean’s posts. It is at its worst when dealing with gay marriage. The argument that your opponents on that are simply bigots is about as helpful (and wrong) as my claiming scientists who work on dissecting embryos for stem cells are all murderers.

    (And by the way, not all opinion against gay marriage is informed by religion. Please stop acting as if it is an idea that is so obvious that no one sensible since the Enlightenment could argue against it, when in fact it is concept all of a few decades old.)

  • Michael Bacon

    “But why break the lines in the middle of the thought? It makes it harder to read.”

    I think because
    it creates
    a sense
    of surprise
    something new to look at
    in a new way

  • Michael Bacon

    Or:

    I think
    because it creates

  • Michael Bacon

    Or, oh well, you get the point

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    “Speaking out against anti-intellectualism is a form of bigotry” might be my favorite argument ever used in a blog comment thread. On our blog, anyway.

    If you are simply looking for a more detailed explanation concerning why anti-gay-marriage sentiment is bogus, let me google that for you.

  • http://www.opiniondominion.blogspot.com steve from brisbane

    Sean: my position was made clearer in my second post.

    By the way, I don’t “get” poetry either. Never have; can’t imagine I ever will, although it is not beyond the realms of the possible. Does that make me “anti-intellectual”, or just unable for whatever reason to appreciate an art form? (Does my dislike of hip hop music also make me an “anti-intellectual”?) In fact, I actually would be worried if I had a teenager who was too absorbed in writing his or her own poetry: in the modern world at least, this often seems to be a sign of undue emotionalism and depression that goes along with suicidal thoughts.

    You don’t “get” religion, I don’t “get” poetry. Meh. We are each insensitive in our own particular ways, I guess.

    As for your comment “The beauty of science can coexist with a shriveled heart”: indeed it can, but I would argue that that is because the “non overlapping magisteria” view of the world is basically correct. It is not by science that we judge his heart.
    Yet your commentary on social views would indicate you don’t believe in the NOMA view, although I wish you did if it would mean we could stop getting social/political commentary on a blog about physics!

  • spyder

    Oh steve from the best region of Australia, though Maroochydore is vastly superior to your lame city, claiming that you speak from (and perhaps for) some sort of religious faith, i only ask: How are you treating your wives this holiday??

    You see, as a historian of religions, i find it flabbergasting that those who defend their religiousity, so often do so while failing to acknowledge that by their very nature religions are prejudicial and biased through necessity. One can’t make christianity from hinduism without creating massive horrendous violence. Whereas, the rational approach to human and civil rights realizes that, at their very core, morality and immorality are amoral constraints, seeking some degree of common good through which all life is treated respectfully and equally.

  • Metal

    A drop of water swirls
    like marble. Ordinary

    crumbs become stalactites
    set in perfect angles

    of geometry I’d thought
    impossible. Few will

    ever see what I see
    through these equations.

    I may read them
    wrong. And be mistaken

    about Labias, Elephants
    Evolution and Continents.

    But even if I am only right
    the dinosaur’s toenail

    Boy, I will take it
    And continue my solitary search

    So we can eventually learn to tell
    the Truth
    from what is deformed and unnatural

    Even if the price I pay
    is a shriveled mind and a hard heart
    and utterly wrong theories about labias.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Anyway…

    On the subject of poetry, Cocteau may have said it best: “Poetry is indispensable…if I only knew what for.” I had the good fortune to witness Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 in person, and heard Maya Angelou recite “On the Pulse of Morning”. Maybe the cold left my brain especially addled that day, but while I understood the words well enough, I can’t say I really “got it” at that moment. Nor did my companions. In fact, the talk of of Apaches and mendicants and mastodons, recited in Ms. Angelou’s soothing cadences, while evocative of something, seemed to leave the whole crowd around me, after politely applauding, wondering quite what.

    Not many of us are used to hearing poetry read aloud to us, and it can be difficult enough extract the author’s meaning from some of it even when we can read it on the page as carefully as we like. I’m not sure if we were moved quite as much as we were meant to be back in 1993, and I didn’t feel as if I was being transported back to Camelot to relive some magical American ritual. I dunno about this inaugural poetry thing. It can be surprisingly underwhelming, IMO. Can the best work of a modern poet appeal to most folks when recited, by its very nature? And if not, is there any point?

  • spyder

    Can the best work of a modern poet appeal to most folks when recited, by its very nature?? Yes it can!!!

    First and foremost, poetry is intended to be spoken, whether by the author or the reader, and the breaks and punctuation (pauses in reading) frame much of the intent and meaning. Second, good poetry (and there is a great deal of very poor modern poetry) requires an immersion into it; rather than once a year (or every 12 years) one needs to spend a day with lots of good poets reading good poetry.

    For example, my friends and i help produce the Watershed Poetry Festival in Berkeley at the end of each summer. We invite the finest environmental poets from around the country (and the world) to provide readings of their work, in hopes that children will be inspired to connect the wonders of the Earth with their minds through poems. Some of the newer pieces have come from biologists and botanists writing about the flora and fauna they research, sharing their discoveries in new and unique ways (versus journal articles).

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I imagine that’s the crux of the problem: Lack of immersion.

  • http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com judith weingarten

    Hullo.

    Don’t academics credit sources any more? I published Uppity Stone Age Venus and an Hottentot Slave on 14 December. Same cartoon, some similar points, same time.

    What ho?

    Judith

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Sorry, Judith, I hadn’t seen your post.

  • http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com judith weingarten

    OK, I accept a Zeitgeist explanation. Strange how often that happen

    Judith

  • http://www.localafro.co.uk Tauy

    I read a similar article about a week ago.

  • marilove

    There is no reason whatsoever to be against gay marriage unless you are bigoted. Period. And what are those reasons that are not religious? There ARE no logical reasons to be against gay marriage. None.

    Being anti-gay marriage is anti-intellectual and bigoted. Period.

  • Pingback: The President’s Poets « Cinie’s World

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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