Monday, December 5, 2011

Francis Galton's novel about eugenics

How do you publish a novel arguing that the unfit, weak or mentally infirm should not be allowed to breed, and only those deemed “high quality” be given the privilege of having children?
Well, you don’t. Francis Galton tried to in the first decade of the 20th century, but he died in 1911 before his eugenic novel Kantsaywhere could be published. His family promptly got hold of it and, horrified, destroyed almost all of it.
Now though, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, University College London has published all that remains online. You can download the book from their website, but good luck with reading it: it is published in the form of scans of Galton’s typewritten manuscript, complete with scribbled corrections.
Galton was a polymath who variously invented a system for fingerprinting, pioneered weather maps and made major contributions to social science. But his memory has been tainted by his longstanding obsession with eugenics.
Kantsaywhere is his attempt to sell the idea of eugenics to British society. It’s the story of Professor Donoghue, who arrives in the eugenic state of Kantsaywhere and must pass a series of tests in order to be accepted into the society and marry his love, Augusta Allfancy. The book recounts how Donoghue is tested for his strength, intelligence and aesthetic sense, and attempts to demonstrate that his ancestors had “good genes”.
Too much has been removed to judge the book on its literary merits. As it stands Donoghue is a bland narrator, with no discernible personality, and there are no other characters or plot developments. But this may be the result of the heavy editing. Meanwhile Donoghue’s love Augusta has been almost entirely removed, apparently along with a number of explicit sex scenes.
The book could have done with the sex, for in its current form it is irremediably dry. Galton describes the tests, and the principles of the society, in detail. That might have worked perfectly well if it had been integrated into a story with characters and setting, but in this form it’s like reading a textbook.
However, even in this form, it is hard to escape a ghastly fascination with Galton’s vision of a eugenic society. What is most striking is that, in all the tests he envisions people going through before they can breed, nobody is ever tested on their sense of morality. The tests aren’t concerned with whether people are kind, sharing, empathic or cooperative. Apparently, these qualities weren’t as important to Galton’s perfect society as being able to sing in tune or write an insightful essay, both of which are systematically measured.
In that chilling disdain for emotion and feeling, Galton’s novel presaged the many inhuman horrors of the two world wars to come.
The remaining portions of Kantsaywhere were made available online by University College London to mark the 100th anniversary of Francis Galton's death.

No comments:

Post a Comment