By E. L. Doctorow.
264 pages
New York: A Plume Book, 1997.
ISBN # 0-452-27549-0

Comments of Bob Corbett
February 2002

Caution: Spoilers follow. Normally I delete critical details that might mar the suspense of a story. However, since I want to deal with some of the interesting philosophical ramifications of things that determine the plot I would recommend to those who have not yet read the book and may want to do so, that you not read the comments below.

Newspaper editor and story narrator Mr. McIlvaine tends to hire primarily free-lance journalists rather than regularly hired reporters. One key reason for this is that Tammany Hall has a way of getting to regular reporters that is less easy and widespread than with free-lance folks. However, one of his best free-lancers, Martin Pemberton is missing and McIlvaine sets out to find him.

E.L. Doctorow weaves a brilliant and gripping story from this starting point. Set in New York City in 1871 at the tail end of the power of Tammany Hall, Doctorow manages to give us some glimpse of the time, but not as successfully or fully as in Ragtime or World’s Fair. However, this story raises some of the most interesting philosophical and social questions of any of Doctorow’s works I know.

As the search for Martin Pemberton widens to include honest cop, Captain Edmund Donne, we discover that Pemberton’s wealthy father, Augustus has died, but his considerable fortune seems to be missing. Then things are complicated since the missing Martin claims to have seen his father after he was supposedly dead and buried.

Slowly and with incredible care, craft, skill and art, Doctorow weaves his story of corruption in high places and a near science-fiction mad Dr. Sartorius. He never ceases to astound as new found detail builds on known events to present us with an astounding tale.

Doctorow often gives us advance notice of findings, but only in the barest detail, claiming that actually he wants to reveal the story in the chronological order in which McIlvaine and Donne discover them, but that now and again we need a “this” bit of prior insight into what will come. This teasing us with the known yet unknown is done so brilliantly by Doctorow that I was in awe of the tactic.

In the end things sort of happily ever after. The Pemberton widow and young son get the father’s fortune, or at least a huge portion of it, Captain Donne weds the widow Pemberton whom he’d courted many years earlier, Martin Pemberton is revived and marries his fiancé and McIlvaine presumably gets his editor’s job back – after all, this is an American novel!

Yet Doctorow raises some wonderful philosophical and social questions in relation to Sartorius’ work. I want to focus in a bit on that part of the story since I think it brings to light some of the complexity in evaluating Dr. Sartorius and science in general.

The basic scheme is this: Dr. Sartorius is a medical, scientific, research genius. He wants to have the enormous amount of money he needs to do a wide variety of research projects. He realizes that there are a lot of very rich men who want, more than anything else, to be kept alive. They seem to be either much more concerned with the FACT of life than the QUALITY of it, or at least they don’t seem to raise the question. Rather, they turn over their fortunes to Sartorius in exchange for being kept alive. And alive they are kept, but even in Sartorius’ word, just that and little more. They are “biomotive.” They are alive, well-cared for, but more like zombies than humans.

With this great fortune Sartorius pays off Tammany Hall to gets to operate outside the law, breaks other laws by using the bodies of small orphaned children to help keep the old folks alive, and, in the meantime, creates many advances in medical science, that, once the novel ends and his word destroyed, will not yet be discovered for another 40-70 by more normal channels of medical science.

What is fascinating is that what Sartorius is doing in 1871 in this story is often too far advanced of the society, and no matter how routine today such things as blood transfusions and the ability to manipulate the mind with drugs and other incursions may have become, they were unthinkable in 1871. They were to their time what many today regard the cloning of humans to be or the harvesting of organs for transplant – that is, often seen at one time to be wicked and immoral and “unnatural” a perversion of nature, when at a later time it is likely they will come to be seen as great medical advances.

Satorius has no moral scruples and never minds what he has to do to current law, custom, religious sentiment and such in order to advance his fantastic medical research.

When Satorius believes he is being attacked for destroying the minds of the rich old men in order to keep them “biomotive” in exchange for their fortunes, he defends his work with this astonishing claim:

“What does it matter, after all?” I said to Donne.

Satorius apparently mistook my meaning. “Whatever their state of being they were hardly more pathetic than people you will find strolling on Broadway, or shopping in Washington Market, all of them severely governed by tribal custom, and a structure of fantasies which they call civilization….Civilization does not fortify the membranous mind, or alter our subjection to the moment, the moment has no memory. The person who grows old, or halt, has no past in the eyes of others…. The gallant soldier on the battlefield one day is the next day the amputated beggar we would rather not look at on the street corner.”

Later Satorius is remanded to an insane asylum, not because he is really regarded by other physicians as mad, but in order not to bring him to trial and have to air this entire story in the courtroom. When McIlvaine and Captain Donne interview the head of the team of doctors who examined Satorius and declared him insane, they hear this explanation:

“So you didn’t think, then, he was truly insane?”

“No, yes. My profession was implicated. There was something in this …. Quite crucial to all of us. It happened in our midst. The behavior in question appeared to be criminal, at least. Let us say it was. But it was…. Consistent with the man’s whole medical achievement. He was a brilliant practitioner. He kept going! That is the point – he kept going…..through, beyond….sanity, whatever that is. Or, morality, whatever that is. But in a perfect line with everything he’d done before.

And a short bit later:

“So you knew Sartorius was sane?”

“No, by God, I’m trying to tell you. We knew no such thing. Can you call the things he did…..sane? Sanity is a term about as useful as….virtue. Will you give me a clinical definition of virtue? This wine in my glass is a damn good wine, a virtuous wine, virtuously….winy. It exemplified the best behavior of wine. It is good and sane and virtuous wine.”

The implication, of course, is that Satorius was sane and virtuous as the wine is virtuous and winy. He did what humans do – he sought knowledge into the unknown even if it flew in the face of all social custom and wisdom.

Cleverly, and perhaps honestly, Doctorow does not solve the puzzle. He leaves us with that discussion. He makes the case both for and against Satorius; his insanity, his sanity, his wickedness, his virtue, and Doctorow packs up his writing tools and walks off into the sunset. That’s my favorite sort of philosopher, one who makes a strong and clear case for the complexity of things and then shuts up, leaving us in what I see is the condition of the world – one of infinite ambiguity, moral and scientific. This is not to say we know nothing. We do. But in our desire to know, to be sure, to have answers and to have reason dictate what we do, the tendency is to cover over the essential ambiguity and risk of living and acting in human existence.

E.L. Doctorow has written a wonderful, intriguing and light novel of mystery and intrigue. The book isn’t really profound, nonetheless in the behavior and character of Dr. Satorius he has forced on us a problematic that touches much of contemporary scientific research and raises some profound questions for those who might want to take them up.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett