Balzac's Ass


The Robbers and the Donkey, Paul Cezanne, 1870

by Justin E. H. Smith

Whether species all emerged from the same origin, each representing slight variations on the same underlying type, or whether, to return to Buffon’s view, they are timeless variations on the same underlying type, related not by ancestry but only by their conceptual proximity in the mind of God, remained a contested matter at the Muséum long after the demise of Buffon and of the ancien régime. The two positions were well represented in the controversy between the Gallery’s two most prominent members in the early 19th century, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire. Geoffroy was a disciple of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), the evolutionary theorist best known as the pre-Darwinian who got it all wrong, supposing, as the high-school biology textbooks often caricature him, that the necks of giraffes grew longer because giraffes themselves made such an effort to stretch their necks and to reach the leaves at the tops of trees. Cuvier would criticize this theory as holding “that efforts and desires may engender organs.”

Cuvier succeeded Louis Daubenton as ‘professor of the natural history of organized bodies’ in 1800, and two years later was made chair of animal anatomy at the Muséum. A devout Protestant, he believed that it was befitting God’s power and wisdom to have created all beings at once, and to have outfitted them with every part and every function they would ever need to survive. He held that there were four basic classes or embranchements of animals –the vertebrates, the articulates (or exoskeletal animals), the molluscs, and the radiates–, and that their parts were so ingeniously designed to function together as integral wholes that from any one part the existence and conformation of the others could be inferred with a high degree of accuracy. Thus he says of the skeleton that “the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that –up to a point– one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.” He also believes that it is unworthy of the creator’s dignity to suppose that there should be any continuity or contact between these classes, to suppose, in effect, that God should have created a messy order of nature, where one category of thing bleeds into the next.

Mummified animals recently recovered from Egypt (by Geoffroy) seemed to confirm for Cuvier his doctrine of species fixism: the fact that cats, oxen, and the once sacred ibis had not changed at all since the Pharaonic period could only mean that members of a species are eternally bound to one another in a closed generational series. Geoffroy had accompanied Napoleon as the resident naturalist on the general’s 1798 expedition to Egypt, and may have felt that Cuvier’s speculations about mummies were an unjustified usurpation. Geoffroy’s mobility contrasted with Cuvier’s stationary career: the latter remained as fixed in Paris as he supposed animals were in their lineages. It is difficult not to notice, here, that theories of species transformation had long been held by Europeans to be richly confirmed in Africa, and in particular along the banks of the Nile. The ancient motto Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (‘Out of Africa there is always something new’), cited by Aristotle and nearly every natural historian after him, originally had to do with the idea that on that unknown continent the ordinary laws of reproduction do not hold, as animals regularly generate hybrids by mating with members of other species. The Nile, in turn, was held to possess the ideal balance of heat and moisture for the spontaneous generation of unusually large animals. Rather than being limited to bringing forth frogs, eels, and geese, as was thought to happen in the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine, in Egypt even crocodiles could be spontaneously generated from expansive bubbles of Nilotic slime. In Italy, the Renaissance freethinker Lucilio Vanini had his tongue torn out by the Inquisition for suggesting that human beings could be produced this way as well.

Curiously, Geoffroy’s principal interest throughout his career was the classification of fossil species of Crocodylia, and here he flatly rejected Cuvier’s vision of discrete and non-overlapping kinds. Geoffroy believed that there is a ‘unity of composition’ throughout nature, that all species are, so to speak, variations on a single theme. The full spectrum of these variations, Cuvier believed, can be observed in fetal development. A descendant of this view would later be expressed in Ernst Haeckel’s famous 19th-century dictum that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, that is, that the stages of development of a fetus are substantially the same as those of the species of which the fetus is a member. Of course, in order to believe that the development of the fetus duplicates the history of the fetus’s species, one must believe that a species emerges over time, and that God did not create it once and for all as it is in its current state. This belief also transforms embryology into a vastly more important endeavor than it otherwise would be: to observe and describe the development of a fetus is to witness in nuce the entire history of a species. Accordingly, the study of ‘misfires’ in the course of embryogenesis, of so-called ‘monsters’, would come to be seen as a source of insight into how evolutionary branching might occur. Geoffroy thus sets himself up as the founder of a new discipline, teratology, or the study of monsters, which yields his classic 1812 work on the Essay on the Classification of Monsters. A curious new taxonomy emerges: there are ‘g monsters’, which have two heads and are fused at the torso; and there are ‘l monsters’, the reverse, having a single head but two bodies. There are ‘thoracodelphic chickens’, that is, chickens with brother chickens emerging from their thorax; and ‘derodymous ducks’, a designation whose meaning, I admit, I have not been able to unravel. There are also the elegantly named monstres simples, ‘simple monsters’, such as the ‘cyclops pig’ with a single eye in the middle of its head. All of these are on display, in formaldehyde, at the rear end of the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy.

The conflict between Cuvier and Geoffroy on the question of the unity of the animal kingdom caused a sufficient storm to be discussed, often very critically, well outside of the European scientific community, even leaving its mark in the French literary canon. In his Guide-Âne à lusage des animaux qui veulent parvenir aux honneurs [Beginners Guide for Animals Seeking Acclaim], which appeared serially between 1840 and 1842, Honoré de Balzac set out to demonstrate the asininity of the men of science who build their reputations on claims about the organization of the animal kingdom. The story centers around a man named Adam Marmus, who arrives in Paris accompanied by his donkey, scheming to gain fame and fortune however he can.

The donkey is obliging; he seems sensitive to the vanity of all human endeavors, and as a good beast of burden is more or less happy to go along with them when called upon. From their first arrival in the capital, the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes represents for Marmus’s companion a sort of paradise on earth, “where the animals are so well cared for,” and “where one drinks and eats without fear of being beaten.” Will you ever, he implores the garden, “open up to me your twenty-square-foot steppes, your Swiss valleys thirty meters in size? Will I ever be an animal that lies upon the grass of your budget? Will I die of old age among your elegant trellises, labelled under some number, with the words: African ass… Will the king come to see me?”

Marmus and his donkey check in at a flop-house. The beast is stabled outside, while inside its owner discusses with the other lodgers the best way to become rich and successful as a scientist. Together, they cook up a new science of ‘instinctology’, which holds that instinct is in animals the equivalent to thought in human beings, and according to which it is an animal’s instinct, rather than “its bones, its tarsals, its teeth, or its vertebrae,” that is most useful in determining the nature of a given animal, since “although instinct undergoes modifications, it is one in its essence, and nothing will better prove the unity of things, notwithstanding their apparent diversity.”

The scheme really begins to come together only when it is revealed that Marmus has an animal companion waiting outside. “You have a donkey!,” one of his interlocutors exclaims, “we’re saved!” They devise a plan to “make of it an extraordinary zebra, which will draw the attention of the learned world to your system of comparative instincts, by a certain singularity which will disturb the classifications. Learned men live by nomenclature, so let us overturn the nomenclature.” Marmus’s donkey is worked over by the lodgers. The newspapers will soon report that “a courageous traveller, the modest naturalist Adam Marmus, who crossed Africa by going right through its center, has brought back… a zebra whose peculiarities plainly unsettle the fundamental ideas of zoology, and prove right the illustrious philosopher [i.e., Geoffroy] who does not admit any difference in animal organization, and who proclaimed, to the applause of the learned men of Germany, the great principle of one and the same contexture for all animals.”

This is not just any zebra. Its stripes, we quickly learn, “are yellow and they stand out from a black background.” The new creature is also peculiar in its behavior, with a giraffe-like gait, and this is taken to show, in favor of Marmus’s new science of comparative instinctology, that “the instinct of animals is modified according to the environments in which they find themselves.” And from this modification derives “a new theory of the greatest importance for zoology, one that threatens to overturn the reigning doctrine of the great ‘Baron Cerceau’ –a thinly veiled representation of the historical Georges Cuvier–, according to which “each class (is) an organization unto itself.” Now, it turns out, as a result of the yellow-striped, giraffe-like zebra, that “the oyster, the polyp, the coral, the lion, the zoophyte, microscopic animalcules, and man, are all the same apparatus, simply modified by means of organs that are elongated more or less.” Marmus will accordingly declare, at the height of his fame, that “my zebra is no longer a zebra, but a fact that engenders a science.” More correctly, the zebra has engendered a rift in the scientific community, with Cerceau losing ground to the defenders of ‘zoological unity’. The Baron is soon betrayed by a disciple who converts to Marmusianism, and who offers a course of comparative instinctology, opening it up even to women and to curious members of the bourgeois public. Various intrigues ensue, and eventually the ‘zebra’ ends up in the zoological garden of London (“France was not able to hold onto the most curious animal in the world”), from where he recounts the story of Marmus and Cerceau.

Balzac allows the disguised donkey, telling its tale from London, to serve as a mouthpiece for his own, the author’s, dire assessment of the machinations of learned men: the only thing that has been learned from the great French zoology wars of the early 19th century, the author thinks, is that ‘imbeciles are ready to give money and acclaim to intriguers’. The donkey exhorts his fellow inmates at the London zoo to accept their lot, indeed to realize (in reference to the tale’s French title) that to live out one’s days in a menagerie is precisely to ‘make it’ [parvenir], and that his parvenu companions should banish the thought of rebellion or protest. He imagines a future in which jardins des plantes multiply in every country, and animals are free to live out their lives “behind gilded trellises, at the cost of the state: a bunch of Marmusian sinecures.” For him, as for the Rhinoceros of Versailles and so many other animals, the mortal end of this charmed life represents only a transition from the menagerie to the gallery of comparative anatomy: “Think about it,” he implores them: “after my death I will be stuffed and preserved in the collections, and I doubt that we would be able, in the state of nature, to achieve such an immortality. Museums are the Pantheon of animals.”

This is all very good satire: where else but in satire’s inverted world could an ass appear, to invoke Buffon’s categories, as the most noble figure, and the humans the most degenerate? After all, as Edward Topsell tells us in his 1607 Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, the ass is nothing if not “slow, burthen-bearing, back-bearing, vile, cart-drawing, mill-labouring, sluggish, crooked, vulgar, slow-paced, long-eared, blockish, braying, ydle, devill-hayred, filthy, saddle-bearer, slow-foot, four-foot, unsavoury, and a beast of miserable condition; beside many other such titles in the Greeke.” (Curiously, however, one of Buffon’s most elegiac passages, cited above, in which he encourages us to “admire equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design,” occurs in the section of his Histoire naturelle on ‘The Donkey’). Yet the satire only works on the presumption that animals do not deserve their own Pantheon. On one way of reading Balzac’s tale, human beings only debase themselves when they attribute too much importance to learning about the order of nature, and about their own place in that order. Marmus’s intrigues are permitted because the Parisian world, sustained by the fleeting enthusiasms of bourgeois women and men, is ready to be taken by storm at the sight of a new sort of creature brought out of the depths of Africa. They are so ready, in fact, that they are able to let a painted donkey overturn everything they had previously believed about the principles behind nature’s organization.

I have never been to the real Panthéon, the pantheon of French humans, though I have crossed in front of it countless times, when I was a visiting student in Paris. I had next to no money, and was obliged to do my grocery shopping at an oddly placed branch of Picard les Surgélés, a store specializing in down-market frozen foods, at the Place du Panthéon, inserted among some of the world’s most distinguished real estate. (If my mood had been slightly different this summer, I could very well have ended up writing a book about Picard and its elegant aisles of chunky white plastic sacs, filled with frozen spinach pellets and curled-up little shrimps.)  I gather the Panthéon is a great gallery filled with busts of a number of the heroes of the French Republic. I can’t help but note, though, that this is already a sort of profanation, an intentional crossing of ontological boundaries that were once carefully guarded. A pantheon, after all, is a place to revere gods, and not men, and once the gods have been chased out of a culture’s imagination, it is not at all surprising that attention turns to animals: for heaven’s sake, we need to revere something besides other humans.

If Balzac is right, that the modern natural history museum is a Pantheon for animals, this could mean that the banishment of the gods in the modern era has in fact led to a sort of retheriomorphization of divinity, a return to the idea, last embraced in full in ancient Egypt, that animals themselves are gods. Certainly, no Buffon or Cuvier would ever say as much. They would acknowledge at most that animals are, so to speak, divine wisdom congealed. Yet that basic insight driving Buffon and Cuvier, it seems to me, is the same insight that motivated Aristotle to say, of the study of living beings, ‘here too dwell gods’. This insight is nothing to ridicule. The Gallery of Comparative Anatomy is a Pantheon of animals, and it is not only an ass who would suggest they deserve to have one if humans do.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website