I desperately want to open the Jack London chapter I'm currently working on with the following clipping from the August 10, 1902 edition of The New York Times:
QUEER CASE OF ATAVISM
German Physician Tells of Two Young Men Who Ruminate Their Food
BERLIN, Aug. 9—The Munich Medicinische Zeitschrift has an article by Dr. L.R. Mueller, head physician of the clinic at Erlangen, reporting a remarkable case of a family of ruminators.
The father of the family died in the clinic of cancer of the stomach. His two sons digest their food like cows.
The young men say that after a quarter of an hour the food returns to the mouth and is rechewed.
After drinking water or beer the ruminating stops. Dr. Mueller believes the case shows all the symptoms of atavism.
This short story captures all the confusions I confront in my chapter with an economy the chapter itself increasingly lacks. Plus, it almost reads like a poem. Most notable is the potential pun on the verb "ruminate" and its cognates. Less salient but more powerful is the strange causality created by the juxtaposition in the second paragrah.
That "the father of the family died in the clinic of cancer of the stomach" is lamentable. But it has nothing to do with the fact that "his two sons digest their food like cows." Or does it? Given the headline's declaration that these two sons represent a "queer case of atavism," readers cannot be sure the father's stomach cancer is not the result of his own ruminative inclinations. Atavism, however, should not be heritable. During this period, the word "atavism" signals an acceptance of the work of criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso. For Lombroso, some people were "born bad." They were genetically inclined to steal, rape, murder and interpret texts literally.
According to Lombroso's essay in September 1895 edition of Forum, the judge incapable of "personal mental effort," who cannot "give free course to those associations of ideas and emotions of which complexity is so great," is as dangerous to society as the thief, rapist, murderer or masked epileptic. "The judges," Lombroso laments, "pronounce judgment as if the crime formed the simplest incident in the life of the criminal." In truth, however, they have been ruminating their food and washing it down with beer their entire life. (How do you like them jarring apples?)
Lombroso concedes the value of education while acknowledging the innate depravity of children: "We must admit that there is a tendency to crime at a very early age. Children are liars, thieves, etc. This tendency in well-born children disappears with a good education." In other words, contrary to Lombroso's insistence, atavism isn't a degeneration into a more primitive type so much as a bad education. "If only little Jimmy hadn't neglected his numbers, he wouldn't have raped, murdered, or had epileptic fits." Similarly, if only their father hadn't decided that pseudo-bulimia was the most efficient mode of eating, his children wouldn't ruminate their foods.
What's my point? I don't know. Why don't I know? Because there's no rationale behind the categorization of behaviors in fin de siecle American culture or in the works of Jack London and it's beginning to infuriate me. Distinctions between the fuzzy categories of "type," "race," "species" and "culture" are neither hard nor fast nor there at all. Any one of those terms may mean any of the others, such that I'm almost tempted to say that it may be better for everyone if I invent the distinctions a responible scholar would merely describe because, well, because I see why those who came before me did.
Social Darwinism? Sure it didn't exist, but it's so much easier to understand everything if it did...