Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Anker: Preview of Kemp’s The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

From: Suzanne Anker
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2007 07:48:58 -0500

Many posts in our conference have referred to questions about “the animal.” From a companion species (Haraway) to living test-tubes ( Karafyllis) to food sources, our co-evolution with non-human species continues to raise innumerable questions, both ethically and psychologically.
At a time when H.G. Wells fantasies of Dr. Moreau move out of the laboratory and into social space, question concerning “taxongenomic crash” as I term it, rise to the forefront. Examples include the accelerating ease with which diseases are jumping from animals to humans and Darwinian selection between industrialized food source fish and “wild-type” species. Martin Kemp’s forthcoming text, which is cited here, historically traces human thinking and picturing in regard to our sentient others. I invite you to a preview .

The Human Animal in Western Art and Science
Martin Kemp

If it is dangerous to make man see too much how he is like the beasts, without showing him enough of his grandeur, just as it is to make him see his grandeur without showing him enough of his beast-like qualities, so it is even more dangerous to let him ignore one or the other. (Blaise Pascale, 1632-1662)

Part I.: Humours, Temperaments and Signs
Chapter 1:Fixing the Signs
Chapter 2: Feelings and Faces
Part II: Souls and Machines
Chapter 3: From Meaning to Mechanism
Chapter 4 Fable and Fact: La Fontaine and Buffon
Part III: Going Ape
Chapter 5: Beastly Boys and Admirable Animals
Chapter 6: Our Animal Cousins
Chapter 7: Art and Atavism

Facing up to ourselves

We all exhibit a propensity to react to members of the animal kingdom as if they have personalities that we can read from their appearance. We also manifest a tendency to see individual people as bearing some kind of resemblance to one of our fellow vertebrates, or even invertebrates. The title of this series of studies is to be understood in this double sense – humanised animals and animalised humans. There is rich historical legacy of imagery, which illustrates both sides of this animalistic coin.

On one hand we have the wide vein of animal representation, ranging from compilations of natural history to the illustration of animal fables. It would be easy to disassociate the more obviously humorous and story-telling aspects of the animal capers from the “serious” scientific illustrations. But this is certainly not valid historically. In the first great printed picture-books of animals in the Renaissance, the character and meaning of the animals as defined in the “Bestiaries” was of as much concern as what we might regard as more scientific data. And fables, for their part, could serve serious philosophical ends. It might seem the whimsy of legend was progressively expelled from the portals of zoological science, above all in the 19th century. However, the element of “story” in the natural history of animals has continued to exercise a powerful if somewhat covert hold on the imaginations of those who aspire to build up a picture of nature in action. Darwin is a key participant in this respect.

At the more popular level, we can all recall as children the central role that animals played in our developing consciousness of character, behaviour and life-narratives. Children’s storybooks are replete with speaking animals, often standing on two legs. How many of us have not possessed beloved cuddly or less cuddly stuffed animals, accorded human names and very distinct personalities? It is striking how relatively constant are the virtuous and the villainous amongst the child’s cast of animal characters. Teddy bears – improbably, given, the fierce irascibility of bears in the wild – have become the most popular repositories of warm feelings and trust companionship. Over the longer span, we expect to find dogs and cats and small birds featuring strongly in the lists of the basically good. Snakes figure hardly at all amongst the virtuous. Foxes, amongst the canines, are not regularly regarded with feelings of trust, whereas badgers, which are at least as keenly carnivorous, generally fall on the friendly side of the divide. Wolves are generally beyond the pale. Certainly for Red Riding Hood. Though for the Romans a she-wolf suckled their legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, and there were persistent legends of wild children nurtured by wolves.

Clearly the actual behaviour of the animals in relation to humans plays a powerful role in our instinctive perceptions of their characters. The most sustained relationship that we have enjoyed with any animal is with the horse, the noble beast that for generations carried men into war, pulled wheeled vehicles and tilled our fields. Only exceptionally does the horse play anything other than a worthy role. Equally, it is difficult to imagine a dairy cow or woolly sheep acting as the villain of the piece (or peace), even less so if they feature in their youthful guises as calf or lamb. Bulls and rams are a different matter. Gender and age are obviously potent factors. On the other hand, some notably violent and unsociable animals regularly play admired roles. Our cherished cats are noted for their ritual slaughter of mice and baby birds. Even the lion is conventionally granted a noble personality, according to a legend of many centuries’ standing. There is hardly a building erected by European and many oriental rulers that do not parade lions as representative of the potentates’ just but fierce virtues. Tigers occupy in a more ambiguous position, desirably signifying the high performance of Esso petrol, while not commonly regarded as promoters of peace and harmony. Bats, creatures of the dark, are not much liked, in contrast to many birds. Black crows do carry sinister connotations, however, while black and white magpies are notorious thieves.

Inhabitants of the waters are best considered on a case-by-case basis, but tend on balance to fall on the distrusted side of the emotional spectrum, with sharks and octopuses regarded as particularly malevolent. Fishes’ eyes tend to be regarded as unappealing and unsettling, and we often refer to something “fishy going on” when we suspect that deceit is being perpetrated. Amphibians and reptiles also tend to evoke feelings of revulsion. To describe someone as “reptilian” is certainly not a complement, and we may suspect that are likely to be involved in fishy or creepy activities. The aesthetics of touch undoubtedly play a role in stigmatising such genera of animals. Wetness, sliminess, hardness and temperature all have roles to play. Someone lacking warmth of emotion is described as a cold fish.

Non-vertebrates as whole tend not to get a good billing, though snails clearly do much better than slugs. Animals with angular exoskeletons exude an air of aggression, reminiscent of knights in armour. Strangely, such “medieval” insect garb has become one of the stock in trade features for futuristic sci-fi warriors from alien planets. Insects and crustaceans are not fondly regarded as a group. Butterflies are an exception, even when masquerading as caterpillars, as are bees for the most part, but not wasps (unless you own a Vespa scooter in Italy). Spiders can sometimes be regarded as OK, especially with respect to their arachnid weaving skills, and little “Money Spiders” can be children’s favourites, but they more often stimulate strikingly adverse reactions beyond rational explanation. Even in Britain, where there are no native poisonous spiders, the sight of a big, black specimen who has ascended the waste pipe into a white bath is likely to produce a shudder of dread. Size and hairiness are definitely significant factors in defining a spider as threatening.

Ancient legends of the animals, particularly as recorded in “Bestiaries” told of idiosyncratic habits that were frequently read in terms of human meaning. The legacy of the legends is found in popular imagery and sayings, “Hiding one’s head in the sand”, as ostriches were wont to do, has come to symbolise not facing up to reality. When we manifest insincere grief, we are “crying crocodile tears”. The key compilations of fables, by Aesop and La Fontaine, including many illustrated editions, and the recurrent tales of Reynard the Fox, have typically dressed up salutary lessons for humans in the garb of picturesque stories of talking animals. Reynard’s legendary cunning is both a literary topos and related to the well-documented inventiveness of foxes pursued by hunters. As in other territories inhabited by the human animal, many beasts retain relatively constant characteristics, such as the kingly lion, though even he could be satirised as occasion demanded.

Over the ages and across cultures, many different animals have been regarded as sacred, and even as deities. Just to take two examples, monkeys are sacred in Sri Lanka, while cows are accorded divine status in India. The term “sacred cow” has entered common usage to indicate something or someone who cannot be criticised (often with the implication that such status is not altogether warranted). The many Egyptian statues of cats testify to their divine attributes, while combinations of feline and aquiline characteristics in such compound beasts as griffins signify origins and powers beyond those of natural creatures. Generally speaking, creatures fantastically assembled from the component parts of diverse species have served as harbingers of divinity or devilry. Almost all religions that have exploited figurative imagery have developed fantastically confected agents for good or for evil. Human-animal compounds carry a particular frisson, as mermaids, sirens, harpies, centaurs and satyrs testify.

The perceived character of particular animals, male and female, real and imaginary, is not subject to simple generalisation, and once we embark on the assembly of lists it is difficult to know when to stop a complex and often unstable mesh of cultural factors, knowledge, experience, and deep-seated instincts are involved, collectively and individually. The same creature can play the roles of polar opposites. Many people love birds of all kinds. A few cannot stand to look or touch of feathers. And one of the scariest of all Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces of filmed unease was “The Birds”, in which flocks of flapping insurgents wreaked mass revenge on humans, as fronted by the lovely Tippi Hendren (fig. 1). The complexity and fluidity of our feelings does nothing, however, to diminish the elemental power of our reactions to each creature in particular circumstances.

The power of a film such as Hitchcock’s, addressed to adult audiences, shows that whatever we may have sloughed off amongst our childish things, we retain a very strong instinct to anthropomorphise animals and to build them into our own stories. Domesticated companions are obviously in the front line, but no visitor to a zoo is likely to the resist the pull to assign character on the basis of appearance. Even the popular names of some wild animals and, most notably, birds speak of their fancifully assigned roles in human society. The Secretary Bird, for instance, is all neat precision and high-heeled pertness.

Orwell’s exemplary “fairy tale” of revolutionary animals taking over their farm, and the inexorable onset of hierarchies and divisiveness, gains much of the efficacy of its characterisation from our instinctual anthropomorphising. The initial assembly was convened by “old Major, the prize Middle-White boar”, now venerable and stout, but still “majestic looking”. Of the sketches of the animals, all of whom behave as more-or-less true to type, none are more finely characterised than the horses, the beast best known to humans over the ages:
"The two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover, came in to together, walking very slowly and setting down their vast hairy hoofs with great care lest there should be some small animal concealed in the straw. Clover was a stout motherly mare approaching middle life, who had never quire got her figure back after her fourth foal. Boxer was an enormous beast, nearly eighteen hands high, and as strong as two ordinary horses put together. A white stripe down the centre of his nose gave him a somewhat stupid appearance, and in fact he was not of first-rate intelligence, but he was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work…
At the last moment, Mollie, the foolish, pretty white mare, who drew Mr. Jones’s trap, came mincing daintily in, chewing a lump of sugar. She took her place near the front and began flitting her white mane, hoping to draw attention to the red ribbons it was plaited with."
Writing this, as I am, in Los Angeles on the night that the Oscars are awarded, I sense that Mollie would had felt more at home amongst the bejewelled starlets than with the pigs snuffling in their troughs. Though in Orwell’s tale it is the pigs that are the cleverest of animals.

At the very end of the book, the pigs are to be discovered forging a self-serving alliance with neighbouring humans. Looking into the house at the summit meeting of pigs and farmers,
"Clover’s old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins. some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing?…"
Later, following an argument between Mr Pilkington and Napoleon, the leading pig, who had been accused of cheating at cards,
"Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
This last line of Orwell’s novel flips to the other side of our coin; that is to say; to our parade of animalised people.

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