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May 24, 2014

#65:  VICTOR.  One of the arresting stories of French history is of the abandoned boy discovered in 1797 in the forests of Aveyron, who had been living wild for some years, who was captured and brought to Paris and who for six years was the sole student of  Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who attempted to bring the boy into the human community by teaching him the use of language.  Victor de L’Aveyron, as he came to be known, arrived in Paris with many of the eagerly-discussed questions of the time billowing around him.  What is the human in isolation?  What is man in the savage state?  What are the gains and losses of the civilizing process?  Victor was a walking philosophical question—the answers to which, as his education progressed, kept rolling just out of reach.  What can be captured in part is the human drama, the relation between Victor and Doctor Itard, as well as Itard’s remarkably intuitive teaching skills; almost the best part of the tale is watching Itard create a pedagogy day by day, as the meanings of Victor’s responses appear and shift.  It’s a story of wonderful particulars of the France of its day, and of historical importance to the history of education and medicine, but also of the human inheritance we all have title to.

       Itard’s own reports are available in English (The Wild Boy of Aveyron, translated by George and Muriel Humphrey, Meredith Publishing, 1962) and the French texts are included in Lucien Malson’s Les Enfants Sauvages (Editions 10/18, 1964).  Two excellent books are Harlan Lane’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron (Harvard, 1964) and Roger Shattuck’s The Forbidden Experiment (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1980).  Lane’s book is the more detailed and has an exhaustive bibliography; Shattuck is the more graceful storyteller.  Mordicai Gerstein’s novel Victor (Farrar, Strauss, 1998) is less interesting than the non-fiction accounts.  In the 1970 film L'Enfant Sauvage,  Francois Truffaut brought his own nuance and sensibility to the story:  when, in Nestor Almendros’s ravishing black-and-white photography, we see Victor dance in the moonlight, it’s eerie and moving beyond words, and it hints at ecstacies a cultivated man like Itard knows not of.  Maybe those mad old Romantics weren’t all wrong.

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