To kick-start a chronicle, a writer needs an attention grabber, usually a piquant item borrowed from mid-narrative. This history of the Tower Menagerie, founded 1235, begins on a winter day in 1764, when John Wesley, aged 61, arrived at the Tower with a flute-playing companion, to conduct what he called 'an odd experiment'. The idea was to observe how the lions reacted to music, which might give some indication as to whether animals possessed souls. Descartes had ruled that they were mere machines, incapable of feeling. Hence some response identifiable as appreciation of music, ideally a standing ovation, would have been a timely rebuff to French philosophy. In the event only one lion bothered to come to the front of the den, where his powers of concentration were spoiled by a playful tiger; the other four lions ignored the proceedings; perhaps, like the Duke of Lauderdale, they preferred the mew of a cat to the best music in the world. Wesley's test for signs of spirituality in the king of beasts is not to be mocked in an age when cognitive ethologists are trying to discover whether animals have a sense of humour or can experience romantic love, and are fearlessly addressing queries such as: 'Is it permissible to play music to dolphins as long as they can move away?'
LRB 24 July 2003 | PDF Download