Gareth B. Matthews
Review of Gus et les Hindous [Gus and the Hindus] by Hubert Monteilhet (Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1982). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 7(1): 1.
Gus, recently turned nine, is invited to eat with the grownups when his parents’ friend, Mr. Jobard (“Mr. Gullibility”), comes over for dinner. Mr. Jobard, who has just returned to France from a trip to India, captivates everyone, including Gus, with his account of the customs and beliefs of the Hindus, and especially with his vivid report on their belief in metempsychosis. With a menacing glance at Gus he warns that, according to this belief, naughty children may turn into animals, the very naughtiest into plants, or even rocks. “What would there be to do,”
Gus muses, “if you were a potato or a paperweight?”
After dinner Gus becomes ill. Worried by the prospect of becoming an animal or a pebble, Gus asks his mother if Mr. Jobard’s stories are true. Such things, his mother tries to assure him, happen only in India. Besides, she adds, if Gus were changed into an animal, even into a flea, she would recognize him immediately.
Feverish and delirious, Gus undergoes some kind of transformation. He has become, it seems, a flea on the back of his old dog, Salami.
Seeming to awake from that dream, Gus undergoes another transformation. This time he seems to himself to have exchanged bodies with Salami. And alas! no one, not even his mother, recognizes him in his dog body.
In a desperate effort to communicate with his parents, Gus succeeds in writing, first “Mama,” and later “Papa,” in a tray of dog litter. However, instead of being recognized as human soul imprisoned in the body of a dog, Gus is celebrated as an extremely clever dog. As a dog wonder he is invited to appear on TV; but on TV he panics and finds himself unable to perform the advertised feat.
Totally frustrated, Gus finally bites Mr. Jobard, who, fearful that the dog is rabid, insists he be killed and examined for rabies. As the vet is giving him a lethal injection Gus wakes from his nightmare to find himself in the welcome arms of his mother.
Gus and the Hindus is provocatively humorous, and doubly so. First, its humor is the bawdy ribaldry of outrage and insult. But second, its humor is something that makes us think.
What would it really be like to change places with a flea, or a dog? Well, for one thing there would be a striking change in phenomenological perspective. Having become a flea, Gus looks up into the thicket that turns out to be the hair on Salami’s back. Having become Salami, he finds himself lying under, not on, the bed, and both inclined to walk on all fours and also uncertain and awkward about doing so.
With a human life experience behind him, Gus is quite unprepared to lead Salami’s life. In one of many comical scenes in the book, Gus and Salami encounter the neighbors’ tomcat, a ferocious, spitting monster that no respectable French soul in dog’s body could deal with.
Gus and the Hindus invites reflection on the deep questions of personal identity. But it also invites reflection on the ways adults treat children and the ways people, adults and children alike, treat animals.
John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, seeks to identify the principles of justice as those rules we would all agree to in rational self-interest if we knew almost nothing about the personal circumstances of our lives. Not knowing whether we would be black, or female, or highborn, or of low intelligence, we would choose rules that would block systematic disadvantage to blacks, females, etc. Recast in the myth of metempsychosis, Rawls’ rules are those we would agree to, in rational self-interest, if we were ignorant of what human body, we would next animate.
Classical accounts of metempsychosis, however, whether Eastern or Western, include the possibility that one might next become a nonhuman animal. Do we need, then, to include the possibility of becoming a dog, say, in the thought experiment Rawls asks us to perform? Rawls thinks not, on the grounds that we do not owe dogs justice.
Yet even if we do not owe dogs justice, surely, we owe them compassion. And the fact that we owe them compassion seems connected with the appropriateness of asking of someone who is being cruel to a dog, ” How would you like someone to do that to you?” What ever force that question has speaks for the moral relevance of Gus-like thought experiments.
Gus et les Hindous is funny; it is also very philosophical. It is, in fact, a wonderful example of philosophical whimsy in French children’s literature.