Of Monuments and Greatness

The main square of the town that is nearest to my house in France, Les Vans, is called the Place Ollier, named after Léopold Ollier. This name will conjure up very little in the minds of 9,999 of 10,000 people, but Ollier was a great man, the most important orthopaedic surgeon of the 19th century: indeed one of the founders, if not the actual founder, of the discipline itself. It was he who discovered that bones grow and heal from the periosteum, and this discovery permitted him to perform the first bone grafts. He developed various surgical instruments, adopted Lister’s antisepsis (that revolutionised surgical results) very early,  and was the first to describe a disease that was afterwards named for him, Ollier’s Disease, the growth of cartilage within bones where it should not be that sometimes leads to pathological fractures.

In the small museum devoted to his life and work in Les Vans, there is a statuette of Ollier, standing upright, dressed in a surgical apron of his time, his hand on a mother’s head who is crouching at his feet, holding a small child. It is clear that Ollier is a ministering angel, and the mother is in a worshipful or supplicatory pose.

Statue d’Ollier examinant un enfant presentant un pied-bot, par Destot (Musee Ollier des Vans)

This might seem like typical Victorian hero-worship until you look at the pictures of what Ollier actually did. Deformities tended to be more horrible and dramatic in his time than in ours, and his new techniques permitted restoration if not to normal, at least to function and the possibility of some semblance of active life. It is scarcely surprising that people were willing to kiss the hem of his coat.

In the Place Ollier there is a large and grand bronze statue to commemorate Les Vans’ greatest son. It was erected in 1905, thanks to a worldwide subscription, and was created by Jean Boucher, one of the foremost creators of monuments of his time. There were two copies, the one in Les Vans, and the one in the Place Ollier in Lyon (where Ollier practised and was a professor).

Statue of Ollier in Les Vans, France.

This latter copy was removed by the Germans during the Occupation and melted down to assist with the war efforts of the Wehrmacht, and so exists no longer. One wonders how long the statue in Les Vans will avoid a similar fate.

In the first place, not only was Ollier clearly a paternalist, but the statue itself is hero-worshipping in nature, several times life-size and clearly intended to impress lesser mortals such as ourselves. It takes the great-man view of history, which as we know to be false because it is desired by enlightened persons to be false.

But there is far worse than this to be said about it. Ollier took the view that the great French physiologist Claude Bernard propounded, namely that medicine should be founded upon experimental science, which required vivisection, and Ollier was himself an experimental scientist of note.

This brings us to the means by which he discovered that the inner surface of the periosteum is the source of bone growth: he performed a large series of experiments on rabbits and chickens. For example, he would take a strip of periosteum from the tibia of a rabbit and place it under the skin of the rabbit’s head. Before long, there would be a bony growth evident there, proved not by feel alone but histologically.

Almost needless to say, Ollier proceeded to experiment with bone grafts in animals before he tried them on humans. It is very difficult to believe that all his experiments were other than very painful for his rabbits and chickens, indeed that their suffering was not intense.

So what at first sight appears to be a statue to a beneficiary of mankind is in fact a statue to a man who tortured animals, an uncompromising vivisector. It is no defence of him to say that his experiments which inflicted so much suffering eventually led to a reduction in much human suffering, because he could not have known in advance that they would. After all, it is probable that far more experiments have been performed on animals that cause them suffering without resulting in any reduction of human suffering that that have resulted in such a reduction.

Moreover, by what right does Man, proud Man, inflict suffering on the lower animals for his own benefit? Let him inflict suffering on himself, that is to say volunteers, if he likes, but leave rabbits alone.

Ollier is probably safe on his plinth in Les Vans, however: but not because the potential iconoclasts understand and respect the great labour, devotion and ingenuity it takes to go from ignorance to knowledge, that is to say the great work that he did.

All this could, and indeed has been, said, antivivisectionism having been one of the great social movements of late Victorian Britain, for example. The modern equivalent has been the animal rights’ movement of the second half of the 20th century, a movement that has been very successful in removal of the display of fur coats from the streets of Britain. Animal rights activists have “liberated” minks from mink farms to the great detriment of the local wildlife; they have released mice that have been interbred for decades in laboratories so as to produce genetically identical creatures for experiment. The neuroscientist, Colin Blakemore, was for years the object of harassment and threat (his daughter had to be escorted to school by the police, so real were the threats of kidnap by animal rights activists). No one should underestimate in this age of serial monomanias the mobilising potential of the cause.

Ollier is probably safe on his plinth in Les Vans, however: but not because the potential iconoclasts understand and respect the great labour, devotion and ingenuity it takes to go from ignorance to knowledge, that is to say the great work that he did. On the contrary, they almost certainly take for granted the technique of bone grafting should they ever need it, as if Man had been born with innate knowledge of it and therefore had no need to discover or develop it. This, of course, would mean that the suffering that Ollier must have inflicted on his experimental animals was unnecessary, and all the worse for being so. The one thing that young people brought up on the pieties of multiculturalism cannot do is to imagine themselves into a position other than their own, for example what it is like not to know that the periosteum is the source of growth in bone, and therefore not to know that bone can be grafted. By contrast, they can easily imagine the suffering of Ollier’s rabbits and chickens, and therefore conclude that Ollier, far from being a benefactor of Mankind, was a sadistic monster to whom no statute should be erected.

But as I have said, he is probably on his plinth safe because, Les Vans being a small, obscure and remote town, has not the weight of self-righteous semi-educated young people in it to form a fascistic mob to pull down, even to deface, so solid a monument to human greatness.                          

Reader Discussion

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on July 07, 2020 at 09:18:16 am

Taken from Greg Weiner at NRO today:

"There is a Yiddish saying: When a man wears a white coat, a speck of dust makes it look dirty. That is true enough, especially if one lives in a world devoid of nuance, where heroes are spotless and sinners can never be redeemed. When Horatio told Hamlet that his father was “a goodly king,” the prince replied: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”

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on July 07, 2020 at 10:35:39 am

Year Zero.

Metaphysical rebellion. Hence moralizing along any line wherein traditional categories are summoned, wherein Hellenic-Judaic-Christian philosophical and anthropological categories are summoned, will mean nothing to our contemporary destroyers and zealots. One may as well have wagged one's finger in trite moralistic censure at a Pol Pot in the heat of some bloodlusting fit of tyrannical righteousness.

It's not even antinomian. Antinomianism retains a kind of begrudging respect for traditional lawfulness, despite itself, using it as a prop of sorts. This, what we are beset with, is genuine metaphysical rebellion. Blood will flow in the streets by the buckets full if a correction is not effected.

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Michael Bond
on July 07, 2020 at 12:41:46 pm

The antivivisectionists and similar animal rights Whacko's give a bad name to the virtuous cause of the humane treatment of animals. I recall 30 years or so ago, when Rush Limbaugh's radio program was in its infancy, hearing the colloquy between Rush and a Whacko animal rights activist, a vegetarian bemoaning the plight of chickens. After hearing her complaint, Rush replied, "Madame, God put chickens on this earth for two reasons: breakfast and dinner."

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on July 07, 2020 at 13:01:13 pm

"Madame, God put chickens on this earth for two reasons: breakfast and dinner."

Hey, it ain't bad for lunch at the turn either. In fact, that is what I will have after the first nine shortly.

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Image of gabe
on July 07, 2020 at 14:25:13 pm

Last night, after considering a number of the comments to the various recent essays on this site, a thought occurred to me that I intended to make the topic of a comment. When I read Paladin's most recent comment on the "Revolutionary Community" thread, it appeared relevant to my thought, and I intended to respond there. When I read the title to Dr. Dalrymple's essay, I had a good idea of what I wanted to say before reading his ideas. Then I got to the bottom of his post, and discovered that he used the exact words that I had planned to introduce a new post. Those words are "they almost certainly take for granted..."

One of the reasons we erect monuments is to remind ourselves that we should not take the past for granted. Doing so leads to the delusion that the present would be perfect had it not been marred by the imperfection of the past. One of the remarkable things about the shallowness of today's protesters (in addition to how they have managed to turn the word "education" into a contronym) is what they take for granted. They take it for granted that demonizing and impairing police have consequences that can only represent improvement. They take it for granted that if they "burn it all down" that somehow, public health and transportation, and electricity, and the Internet, and food distribution, and medical care, and mechanisms for orderly resolution of disputes will somehow magically remain, or at worst arise spontaneously from the ashes. These delusions are closely related to the equally absurd notion that if gifted and determined, if imperfect, people had not done great things, someone perfect would have come along to do them.

There are two great dangers to taking things for granted. The first is that it creates fallacies, for the sake of brevity we may call it "Seattle thinking." Taking things for granted makes one oblivious to perils, such as the dangers of crime in an "autonomous area," or the risk of tragedy when walking about in the middle of an interstate highway. Such uncontemplated eventualities are also identified in the mysterious death tolls in New York state nursing homes when blinkered ideologues took for granted that "non-discrimination" was a virtue that viral biology was bound to respect. Ideology, being likewise oblivious to adverse possibilities, is the reckless manifestation of taking things for granted. Quite simply, taking things for granted makes people do stupid things.

The second great peril in taking things for granted is that it makes gratitude seem superfluous, even pointless. This itself is an error. Consider the response to a person whose last words are "I have nothing to be grateful for." Would we take this as a lament or a boast?
Gratitude is a species of joy, and in looking for reasons to deny the former, we inevitable end up rejecting the latter. We tend not to be grateful for things we take for granted, otherwise we would not take them for granted. One would think it an elementary matter to be grateful for the sacrifices of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, or the exploits of Charles Martel, or the resolve of Frederick Douglass ( who remember split both with William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) without seeking to qualify them with petty criticisms.

Lack of gratitude makes a person not only pathetic but small. As I have mentioned here previously (and will again because I think it is true) that if a person lives life to earn respect, he will end up with self respect. If he instead demands respect he will end up with self-pity. When a person with self respect is confronted by challenges he has a source of resilience and determination and resolve. When similar circumstances confront the demander of respect, he sinks back into grievance and despair, ultimately letting others determine what happens to him in life.

Monuments and statues are tangible acknowledgement that we cannot take our prosperity or modernity or long ethical and moral evolution for granted, and that we have very much to be grateful for, even if it seems more satisfying in the moment to pretend otherwise. It is the height of folly and narcissism to think that all was darkness and misery until the day before we were born, and that the world only started on the path to perfection when we took up the march.

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on July 07, 2020 at 15:43:54 pm

How edifying, gracefully expressed and graceful a supposition: gratitude as indispensable moral sentiment. I hereby award it with honor, call it "homily" and urge L&L to mark it as the first in a new category of discourse.
Or was the first homily of distinction the one on dignity from last week?


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on July 07, 2020 at 17:09:36 pm

As codicil to my comment on "gratitude," I should explain, briefly, that "homily" should be added as a new category of discourse so as to de-secularize the discussion of values, law, science, philosophy, economics and politics and expand the discussion's scope beyond the reach of secular reason alone, faith in secular reason alone having proven to be a major historical error and the source of disintegrating pluralism and soul-crushing materialism rather than a progressive, unifying cure-all.

Intelligent, dare I say it, enlightened religious understandings abound which offer profound insights into human life and meaning and which have not been overturned but rendered imperative by modernity's hyper-individualism and postmodernity's moral skepticism and political subjectivism.

These religious understandings have simply been banished from polite intellectual discussion and institutional debate in so far as such things continue to exist. Homily, an essay/sermon form of rhetoric and as an easy-to-understand articulation of theology, is well-suited to help in the de-secularization task.

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on July 08, 2020 at 07:58:06 am

They have now eliminated the dog labs from my medical school in the US. In it I learned the most important principles of antisepsis, surgical preparation, and surgical techniques that stood me well in forty years of practice. I don't ever question the antivivisectionists' intentions, but as we know, nothing is black and white - and we also know what is paved with good intention.

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Jim Wills

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