Doctor Lerne, Sub-God

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Maurice Renard: Doctor Lerne, Sub-God (1908)

Contributed by Brian Stableford

Le Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu, of which a bowdlerized English translation was published as New Bodies for Old (1923) before a full translation appeared, in company with two other items, in Doctor Lerne, Sub-God (2010), is an early account of organ transplantation, inspired by the scientific endeavors of Alexis Carrel and other pioneers of grafting and tissue-culture. The protagonist visits his uncle, the eponymous biologist, unaware that the person who greets him is actually a rival scientist who has transplanted his own brain into Lerne’s body. When the inquisitive hero begins to penetrate the scientist’s secrets, he becomes a subject of the latter’s gruesome experiments.

Author

Maurice Renard was born at Châlons-sur-Marne on 28 February 1875, the son of a successful lawyer. Educated in Reims and Paris, he eventually abandoned his own legal training to follow a literary career, after an interim in which he extended his compulsory military service while contemplating a career in the cavalry. He took considerable inspiration from the work of H. G. Wells, writing essays in which he extolled the virtues of “scientific marvel fiction.” His first collection of stories was published pseudonymously in 1905 and his first novel, Le Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu, followed in 1908. His career was decisively interrupted by the Great War, and when he resumed it thereafter, now forced to make a living from his pen because his family’s estates has been destroyed in the war, he found it more profitable to write detective fiction. He continued to dabble in the fantastic occasionally, however, belatedly publishing versions of several scientific marvel stories that he had planned or completed before the war. He died on 18 November 1939.

Selected Publications

Novels

Le Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu (1908; tr. in Doctor Lerne, Sub-God, 2010); Le Péril bleu (1911; tr. as The Blue Peril, 2010); Les Mains d’Orlac (1921; tr. as The Hands of Orlac, 1929); Le Singe (1925 with Albert Jean; tr. as Blind Circle, 1928); Un Homme chez les microbes (1928; tr. in A Man Among the Microbes and Other Stories, 2010); Le Maître de la lumière (serialized 1933; book 1947; tr. as The Master of Light, 2010)

Short Stories

Fantômes et fantoches (as Vincent Saint-Vincent, 1905); Le Voyage immobile suivi d’autres histories singuliers (1909; tr. in A Man Among the Microbes and Other Stories, 2010); Monsieur d’Outremort et autres histories singuliers (1913); L’Homme truqué (1921); L’Invitation à la peur (1926); Le Carnaval du mystère (1929); Celui qui n’a pas tué (1932); The Doctored Man and Other Stories (2010)

Omnibus

Maurice Renard: Romans et contes fantastiques (1990)

Main Characters

Nicholas Vermont, an automobile enthusiast returned to Paris from Spain after winning the top prize in a lottery, having been “in exile” for fifteen years working as a trader in cork.

Doctor Lerne, Nicholas’ former legal guardian, a dedicated and benevolent scientist, resident of the remote estate of Fonval.

Otto Klotz, Lerne’s former associate, who appears to have left Fonval before Nicholas’ arrival, but who has in fact transplanted his brain into Lerne’s body and replaced him.

Emma Bourdichet, a former patient of Dr. Lerne’s, given a home at Fonval at a time of need but now forced to remain there, with whom Nicholas falls in love.

"The Madman", a mysterious resident of Fonval, kept in strict imprisonment, allegedly Lerne’s former assistant Donovan MacBell but actually (in terms of mind rather than body) MacBell’s Saint-Bernard bitch Nelly, whose brain has been switched with his.

Jupiter, a black bull into the skull of which Nicholas’ brain is temporarily transplanted.

Setting

The story is dictated during the course of an experimental spiritualist séance at a house in the Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris, ostensibly transmitted from a future two years in advance (1909, assuming the séance to be taking place in 1907). It is to that house that Nicholas Vermont has supposedly returned after his adventure at the quasi-Gothic manse of Fonval, near the town of Grey-l’Abbaye in the foothills of the Ardennes.

Summary

Having returned to Paris after his long sojourn in southern Spain, Nicholas wants to renew his acquaintance with the uncle who became a substitute father to him in his youth, although his uncle—the handwriting, tone and frequency of whose letters has undergone a marked change—does not seem enthusiastic, and imposes strict conditions on him before and after his arrival.

As he approaches the Fonval estate by night, Nicholas sees strange monsters illuminated by the headlights of his car. Having arrived, to a distinctly ambivalent welcome, he soon embarks on a series of clandestine explorations, which reveal further mysterious chimeras in the outbuildings and in the house, although he is forbidden entry to the scientist’s laboratories, staffed by sinister Germans.

Initially concluding that his uncle has gone mad, Nicholas becomes determined to rescue the latter’s ward—or prisoner—Emma Bourdichet, to whom he is strongly attracted, in spite of the account she gives him of her checkered past. When Lerne/Klotz discovers that Nicholas knows too much, he takes steps to silence him—as he had previously silenced Donovan MacBell, who had also determined to rescue Emma—by transposing his brain with that of an animal. He transplants Nicholas’ bain into the body of a bull, Jupiter, and vice versa.

Klotz’s experiments are still making progress, and he discovers how to displace his consciousness without the necessity for brain transplantation, so that he can “take possession” of plants, animals or humans—an ability that introduces a fascinatingly obscene complication into one of the strikingly explicit scenes in which Nicholas has sex with Emma. Eventually, however, one such attempted transfer goes awry, and Klotz’s consciousness, unable to attain its intended target, is forced to take refuge in the only organized system readily available to it: the machinery of Nicholas’ automobile. This causes complications when Nicolas attempts to flee with Emma to Paris.


Interest Areas

Body Transformations

The novel’s extensive descriptions of experiments in exotic grafting and identity-exchange by means of brain-transplants is extravagantly Gothic, intended to startle and horrify, but Renard is acutely conscious of the fact that there is an important conceptual gulf between the traditional supernatural apparatus of Gothic fiction and the supposedly-scientific apparatus with which he has replaced and enhanced it. Terror can only be a transitional phase in this extravaganza, in which several characters seem to go mad but none actually does; instead, they attempt to adapt to their new circumstances, however bizarre and horrible they might be. Nicholas’ adventure in learning, not merely to sense the world and act within it as a bull, but to enjoy the rewards of taurean life, is a fascinating episode.

Bioengineering

The novel includes a long discourse by Klotz, in which he explains the history of the work he is carrying forward, citing early experiments in xenotransplantation by August Weismann, Giuseppe Boronio, Alfred Vulpian, Paolo Mantegazza and others en route to the recent endeavors—widely publicized in 1905—of Alexis Carrel and Charles Claude Guthrie. Their experiments eventually won Carrel a Nobel Prize in 1912, and Guthrie would probably have shared it had he not attracted too much notoriety with experiments attempting the transplantation of heads, which proved a yuck too far. Renard was, therefore, writing at an important juncture in the history of bioengineering, in which small successes in the laboratory had open up wide imaginative horizons—horizons quickly clouded by alarming specters. The biological theory on which the story is built is a version of vitalism, and the subsequent obsolescence of vitalist theory bas robbed it of some of its plausibility, but it cannot honestly be said that more recent fantasies of a similar kind have made overmuch progress in that regard, vitalism having stubbornly clung on to a psychological plausibility largely immune to rational argument.

Gender

The novel’s depiction of the sexually-charged relationships between Nicholas and Emma and between Klotz/Lerne and Emma is a significant feature of the story. The frankness of the sex scenes was unusual in 1907, when the novel was written—they were censored from the American translation of 1923—but perhaps no more so than the stark cynicism with which the character of Emma is depicted; although the initial set-up of the plot resembles that of a stereotyped romance, it does not work out that way. The transsexual element of the MacBell transfiguration is not brought out with quite the same brutality, but neither is it ignored, any more than the sexual component of Nicholas’ life as a bull is ignored. Much is left to the reader’s imagination, but pointers in the relevant directions are nevertheless placed within the narrative. As a general exercise in calculated perversity, the novel certainly does not explore every possible corollary of its premise, but nor does it shirk their contemplation.


== Critical Commentary ==` Le Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu does not seem to have been a commercial success in 1908, although it was reprinted after the Great War and maintained a certain reputation thereafter as a graphic horror novel. It was adapted for TV in France in 1983. Its immediate critical reception was more enthusiastic however. The avant-garde symbolist Guillaume Apollinaire greeted it enthusiastically as a type-specimen of a new genre of roman sub-divin [sub-divine fiction], echoing its subtitle. The journalist Georges de la Fouchardière, who was subsequently to write a certain amount of scientific romance and supernatural fiction himself, described it in his review as "a scientific and literary event of a prodigious magnitude".

American reviewers did not greet the first translation with such enthusiasm, but readers might have enjoyed it more if the sex scenes had not been excised—thus altering the relationships between the key characters considerably—and if the translator had not become increasingly prone to error as the work went on. Everett Bleiler describes the book in Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990) as "a curious shocker, imaginative, but not as sound as it might have been psychologically"—an opinion he might have modified had he had the full text available to him.

Although the story certainly belongs to the tradition of "Gothic science fiction" descending from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and makes the most of the horrific potential of its raw material, it is not a straightforward reaction of repulsion against science itself. It draws continual contrasts between the benevolent Lerne and the malevolent Klotz, but represents even the latter as a man motivated by greed rather than a mere “mad scientist”—he has a business plan for the commercial exploitation of his discoveries in the United States, although its first stages do not work out as he had hoped. Even though the author takes full advantage of the fact that there is far more melodrama to be found in the deeds of evil men than good ones, he does not neglect to point out the great things that Lerne might have accomplished had Klotz not usurped his presence. Nor does he neglect to explore the possibility that translocation into the body and sensorium of a bull might have its compensations for a virile young man—far more, at any rate, than the translocation of a heterosexual male into a bitch placed in a kennel full of belligerent dogs.

The frame-narrative employed to "justify" the future-set narrative—a device that might well have been borrowed from M. P. Shiel, although it had also previously been used in such French visionary fantasies as Georges Pellerin’s Le Monde dans deux mille ans (1878; tr. as The World in Two Thousand Years)—might seem to modern readers to weaken its narrative authority, but Renard uses it to add a extra twist to the tale, by suggesting that the people at the séance, alerted to what the future holds, might be able to make sure that Nicholas goes to Fonval forewarned and forearmed, ready to make a better job. not merely of saving Emma, but of saving the legacy of Lerne/Klotz’s work. The frame-narrative stops short of telling the readers whether that plan could be put into action, but—as with so much in the story—the possibility is pointed out for the reader’s further contemplation. That kind of teasing stratagem is a trifle mischievous, but its use, in this as in analogous works, does prevent a story from lapsing into pure horror fiction, and demands that readers give serious thought to scientific and speculative subtexts. Le Docteur Lerne thus emphasizes the potential subtleties that even spectacularly melodramatic “scientific marvel fiction” may contain, thus helping to justify the claims that Renard made for that hypothetical genre in “Do Roman merveilleuux-scientifique et de son action sur l’intelligence du progrès” (Le Spectateur, October 1909; tr. as "Scientific Marvel Fiction and its Effect on the Consciousness of Progress" in the 2010 edition of Doctor Lerne).

Critical Bibliography

Links


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