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
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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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