The Pantheon of Animals
by Justin E. H. Smith
I’m waiting in line, embarrassed to be here by myself. I’ll be turning forty later this month, and here I am at the natural history museum, childless. The ticket lady is going to look at me funny. There is some kid behind me, four years old or so, speaking Swedish to his dad. He is wearing thick, round glasses made of blue plastic, and a colorful backpack with a cartoon image of a Cro Magnon on it. His progenitor is getting a lecture about how birds are, in truth, dinosaurs. The kid is beaming with pride at his own knowledge of this. To my right is a statue, which, as with all statues, I have taken some time to notice. But when I do, I am startled. It is Émmanuel Fremiet’s 1895 masterpiece, Orang-Outang Strangling a Savage of Borneo, a work of horrible violence, and a congealing of sundry, transparent anxieties of the fin-de-siècle European man. The Swedish boy is now on to the difference between mammoths and mastodons.
I’m next in line. I’m at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, the ground floor of a three-storey building also housing the Gallery of Paleontology, both of which are part of the vast complex of galleries, greenhouses, and gardens at the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, in the Jardin des Plantes on the Left Bank of the Seine. “Un billet,” I manage to say. “Plein tarif.” I shouldn’t really be here, I know. But it’s the only place I really want to be, in this foreign, difficult city, at this puzzling stage of life. I am not a boy, but it is where I belong: among the many bones, whose collectors hoped to lay bare through them the very order of nature.
This order has not, I soon learn, been documented in the form of a catalogue. If you want a souvenir book, the cashier at the gift shop tells me, you should go to the Great Gallery of Evolution, now the signature exhibition of the Muséum complex, featuring a much wider variety of informational material available for purchase. But I don’t want a souvenir, unless we take that curious word in its original French sense. I want an inventory of the collection. I will have to do it myself.
I decide then and there, in the gift shop on the morning of my first visit, that I will have to create my own souvenir. I will have to write about this place.
So let us begin with an inventory. The main exhibition hall of the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy is about eighty meters long, or anyhow roughly five fin-whale skeletons could be stretched out lengthwise in it (in fact there is only one). There are thirteen iron beams supporting the roof, and as many high-set, arched windows on each side. The beams call to mind the Eiffel Tower, as well as the Brooklyn Bridge, and every other iron-girded project of that optimistic era. The edifice conveys the spirit of the 1900 World Fair, for which it was constructed, and one can just as easily imagine the space being used by men in top hats to showcase diesel engines, magnetic wire recorders, or tins full of vegetable cooking grease.
The first thing you encounter on entering the main hall is L’Homme écorché, a molded figure of a man with his skin peeled away, made by the sculptor Jean-Pancrace Chastel (1726-1793). The peeled man is wearing a fig leaf, and he is one of the only signs of pudicity in the entire Gallery. He is best ignored
To his left is a glass case with a dozen or so skeletons of higher primates in it (including one human), and to his right a glass case, of the same size, with the skeletons of an okapi, a quagga, and a small wild ass, known in French as a hémippe or ‘semi-horse’. The quagga, a cousin of the zebra last seen alive in 1870, is, along with the marsupial wolf, the Steller’s sea-cow, and perhaps a few others, one of the only extinct species on the ground floor of the Gallery
Between and directly behind the primate and equid cases, there are twenty-seven skeletons of middling-to-large terrestrial and littoral mammals: a hyena, a panther, a panda, a sea lion, a walrus, and one identified as a ‘wolf-bitch mongrel’ (which, in the French loup-chienne métisse, carries the additional antiquated racial connotation of ‘mestizo’). Moving further into the hall, we find, to the left, the skeletons of two rhinoceroses, one black and one white, and also a Malayan tapir. On the right, an onager, also known as a ‘hemione’, which is to say, literally, a ‘half-ass’, alongside two famous skeletons, or, rather, skeletons of famous animals: one, the Rhinoceros of Versailles (c. 1767-1793), to whom we will be introduced more fully below; the other, Rock-Sand (1900-1914), a British thoroughbred racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1903, and who is said to have grown unruly and temperamental after being sold to a French syndicate in 1912.
The row of large beasts including Rock-Sand and the three rhinoceroses draws our attention to something that is not so apparent in the initial vanguard of equids, primates, and sundry quadrupeds: skeletons look very different, depending not just on their species, but also on their provenance, their treatment, their age, and what we might call their ‘life history’ (a history which begins after death). The white rhinoceros’s skeleton is grey and petrous; it looks something like the worn-down pumice stone you might find in a shower. Rock-Sand is brownish-yellow, as if the blood and gristle were not completely boiled off, but had stained the bones it left behind. The variety of tinctures and textures is vividly illustrated as one moves further into the hall and arrives at the glass case, on the right side, containing the skeletons of mummified animals brought back from Egypt by Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844): a dog, a cat, two Dorcas gazelles, a peregrine falcon, an ibis, and an enormous Abyssinian ox. They all appear exactly as if they have been wrapped in bandages, soaked with their own bodily juices, for the past 2500 years. It is hard to say exactly why, but the bones of the rhinoceros of Versailles look like Enlightenment-era bones; the mummy bones, for more obvious reasons, look like true antiquities. It is hard to look at the ancient and modern skeletons next to one another and not to think of them as, principally, cultural artifacts, and only secondarily as the work of nature.
Symmetrical with the case full of mummy skeletons on the right side of the hall, to the left there is a case featuring marsupials, including a number of skeletons of various kangaroo species (such a variety of sizes!), as well as the extinct marsupial wolf. There is also a long-beaked echidna, and a lone platypus, known in French by the beautiful Greek-rooted name ornithorhynque (‘bird-snout’). These last two are ‘monotremes’ (‘one-holes’), so called because the urinary, defecatory, and reproductive functions that in mammals have been separated out into three distinct holes, and in reptiles into two, all take place in these parsimonious creatures through one alone: the cloacha.
Between the marsupials and the mummies are two hippopotamuses, and further back still we find two giraffe skeletons, standing symmetrically on the left and the right, as if on guard. One of the two sentries is the famous Stadthouder giraffe, taken by Napoleon’s army upon seizing the Low Countries. Between it and its less famous partner stand sundry buffalo and elk, and an oryx. As we move in further, there is a reptile case to the right, and a case of exceptional birds, such as the ostrich and the condor, to the left. Between them, an Asian and an African elephant, an enormous manatee, an even larger dugong, and a Steller’s sea cow, larger still, and extinct since 1768. With this massive sirenian we are half-way through the hall. We have passed 100 or so large, freestanding skeletons, and perhaps two to three hundred more, of adult, juvenile, and fetal representatives of mammals, reptiles, and birds, in the various glass cases.
The second half of the floor of the exhibiton hall is designated the ‘Cetaceum’. It was conceived by Georges Pouchet (1833-1894), a professor of comparative anatomy at the Muséum, who brought together the eight complete whale skeletons here according to ‘an aesthetic and systematic logic’. The pièce de résistance is surely the fin whale at the center, the second largest species of animal ever to have existed. To its left there is a southern right whale, with its massive baleen hanging down, tapering off at the ends into fine hairs that must once have served as the ecosystem for countless marine parasites. There is a humpback whale, a coalfish whale, a northern bottlenose, a giant beaked whale, a minke, and, finally, the whale that sustained the 19th-century energy industry with its blubber and with the ‘sperm’ from which it derives its name. Mixed in among these skeletons are various porpoises and dolphins of both sea and river. There are vastly fewer cetacean skeletons than there are of the terrestrial beasts here at the Gallery, yet they take up the same amount of space. Some are beaked, some toothed, some endowed with a massive sieve over their mouths for the filtrage of infinite krill. Both as skeletons and in vivo, the cetaceans look as though they are smiling, but of course they are not.
This completes the inventory of the main floor of the exhibition hall, but in truth we have just begun, for the bulk of the collection is contained along the walls. There are twenty-seven plaques between the windows, numbered in the Roman style, with skulls mounted on them. Each plaque devoted to animals in the same broad class or family, with one featuring boars and warthogs, the next various antlered animals. In all, these add little to the exhibition, other than to make it feel rather closer to a hall of hunting trophies than it otherwise would.
The alternating plaques and windows are located above a stretch of glass cabinets that extend around the length of the hall, numbered clockwise from 1 through 110. Beginning at the left, we find mammalian skeletons, then reptilian, then fish osteology and general anatomy, then a small section devoted to teratology; next, continuing down the right side of the hall, we have a display of the various bodily systems, consisting mostly in the digestive, respiratory, and circulatory organs of various animals in jars of formaldehyde. The tour wraps up with a few glass cases (numbers 96 through 110) that have an overtly didactic tone rather at odds with the rest of the exhibit, where we learn that skeletons are the ‘witnesses of evolution’, and that the skeleton has its own ‘alphabet’. It is as if the affliction that has thoroughly deformed the Great Gallery of Evolution, and that defines the role of the modern natural-history museum as one of providing educational, kid-friendly fun, has begun to creep in here as well, having infected, for now, only a few of the late-numbered glass cabinets.
Starting from cabinet number 1, we first encounter primates. The idea seems to be one of descent down the scale of being, from primate to felid to monotreme to frog and so on. Yet by this criterion things get off to a peculiar start, for in cabinet 2 we are introduced to an indri and a gibbon, and then in cabinet 3 we find an entire skeleton of a Homo sapiens, only after which does the descent begin in earnest. Cabinet 5 shows rows of higher primate skulls in various stages of development: fetal gorilla, juvenile gorilla, young gorilla, etc., and the same for orangutans, chimpanzees, and humans, all with the aim of showing that at the outset there is scarcely any difference. In the final stage of development the human skull looks freakish: the cranium is far too large, as if pushed out on all sides by some rare tumor; the teeth are far too small, and no good for biting much of anything.
The primates continue on, growing cranially less impressive until we arrive at the macaques, and then the lemurs, and then, finally, in cabinet 13, we cross over to the bats. There are hundreds of miniature chiopteran skulls under glass domes, and a few full skeletons splayed out on velvet-covered planks. Next come various other insectivores, such as those of the family of Potamogalidae, with its assorted shrews and tenrecs. Most of the Latin labels are so old and color-damaged as to be practically illegible, though many of the names they bear are no longer accepted anyway.
Next are a dozen cabinets devoted to ‘carnivores’, which as a taxonomic term refers to an order of mammals including bears, wolves, civets, and all the others we can easily picture eating meat. There are various felids, a bear-cub skeleton mounted in a case, and a moulage of a walrus fin. And next, four quick cabinets for what in French are delighfully called rongeurs or ‘gnawers’, which we know much less evocatively as ‘rodents’. The Gambian pouched rat and the South American paca, whose Linnean genus Cuniculus makes it out to be a sort of small rabbit, both stand out among their fellow Rodentia, though probably only because of their names. At the skeletal level, the truth is they all look more or less the same.
Cabinets 32 through 34 are devoted to perissodactyla, which is to say the order of odd-toed ungulates, followed in 35 through 42 by their even-toed counterparts, the artiodactyla. These orders together give us that fundamental distinction between the beasts that are ‘cloven of hoof’, on the one hand, the even-toed pigs and boars and goats, and on the other those that are not. Famously, a number of dietary and symbolic significances would flow from this distinction, which, if you think about it, is perfectly trivial.
Cabinets 43 through 45 are unlabelled, and their hodge-podge of specimens –a bison-cow mongrel (again, a métis), an aardvark (Dutch for ‘earth-wolf’, as if wolves were not already of the earth), and various armadillos– all suggest that we are now well along in our slide down the scale of being. This suspicion is confirmed when we arive at the édentés of Cabinet 46, an abandoned 19th-century designation, meaning ‘toothless’, for the various orders of anteater, pangolin, and sloth, and, finally, in cabinet 47, we pass as if imperceptibly from these alien orders into a different class altogether: the reptilia.
Snakes and lizards are taken care of hastily, before advancing quickly to the ‘ichthyopods’ or ‘fish with feet’, an abandoned category that once denoted amphibians. Of course, the fish with feet, though they lost their place in nomenclature, remain in an important respect the singular symbol of evolutionary science: think for example of the emblem seen on the rear of cars, of a proper ichthyopod bearing the word ‘Darwin’ inside its body, perhaps mounting or devouring one of those footless ΙΧΘΥΣ fish beloved of Christians. On the old nomenclature, every single frog and toad represented a sort of living Darwin fish, a testament to and recapitulation of that fiat lux moment at which some ambitious pisces, or so we like to imagine, decided to push out a set of quadruped stubs.
It is with the ichthyopods that we first see something in the display cases besides skeletons and artificial molds: now, for the first time on our tour, the Gallery reveals the fleshy specimens, in jars and tubes, that inflect every visit there with an unmistakable element of unease. Skeletons are part of the bodies of animals too, of course, and no small violence has to be carried out in order to extract them. But in their final state they are pristine and sterile, and they are cleansed of that property that fundamentally defines for us the biological world: they are not soft and wet, but hard and dry. Skeletons are the part of the body that, being hard and dry, is not subject to decay. With the soft parts we can trick nature by immersing them into fluids such as formaldehyde that are so inhospitable to life as to keep at bay all the microorganisms that ordinarily see to the decomposition of their macro confrères. But of course the vitality of the soft parts cannot be retained, and a frog trachea that sits in a jar of pungent liquid for a century, as its label dulls and fades, transforms over time into something entirely unnatural, ashen, dull and ghastly. This is the Gallery’s great aesthetic counterpoise to the stark and clearn osteology of the great mammals.
We are now half-way through, and are standing at the rear end of the hall, directly behind the Cetaceum. There is a bust of Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850), then a two-door emergency exit, then a bust of Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844), and then, at last, the Gallery’s most sensational specimens: its teratological cabinets, with the two-headed goat and the cyclops pig and various other monsters, all with their archaic and somehow excessively scientific nomenclature. It is said that Geoffroy was representative of a broad shift in the history of teratology: from the Renaissance preoccupation with monsters as portents of God’s wrath (the word ‘monster’ after all, suggests that something is being shown or de-monstr-ated), by the late 17th century a process of normalization had begun, a process of which Geoffroy’s 1812 Essay on the Classification of Monsters is a sort of culmination. Here, birth defects came to be seen rather as opportunities to better understand organic development in general, as exceptions that illuminated the rule. Yet it is hard not to imagine that Geoffroy was just as prone to wonderment at the sight of these animal freaks than any 16th-century village deacon would have been. Monsters are peculiar, and if modern natural history was able to inscribe them into the larger order of nature better than premodern people had been, this may have only illustrated that that entire order is itself peculiar.
Cabinet 58 displays a lone glass tube with an eight-inch dolphin fetus inside. There is nothing monstrous about it, yet it is certainly peculiar, and one wonders why it was placed there, by itself, between the teratological cabinets to its left, and, to its right, a cabinet filled with the diminutive, faux-grinning skeletons of twenty or so human fetuses.
The next large section of wall cabinets, from 60 through 94, takes up, in turn, various systems of the animal body: first the ensemble de viscères or the totality of inner organs, including an impressive mold of a cross-section of a camel, a lamprey and a macaque, each cut open length-wise down the front and placed in formaldehyde; then digestion (a jarred camel caecum, a dried and mounted gorilla jejunum, etc.); then respiration (including a pair of jaguarundi lungs); next, circulation (a macaque thyroid, the brachial plexus of a bradypus); the nervous system (civet spines, human brains). Cabinet 91 is dedicated to skin, and 92 through 94 to sense organs, particularly hearing, since this is the one sense that, in the ossicles, leaves a bony and preservable trace.
Cabinet 95 features a splayed iguana, for no apparent reason, and then, in 96, the aforementioned heavy-handed science education commences. Cabinet 108 interrupts the lesson momentarily with a curious historical artifact: the radius of a giraffe, a bone that in the 1760s the Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) had tried to insist was the thigh of a giant, but that Cuvier was able to identify as properly giraffid only after the Stadthouder of the Hague had had his specimen seized by Napoleon’s army and brought back the Muséum. Cabinet 110 shows Georges Cuvier’s (1769-1832) own osteological display case for the bones of a Lophius piscatorius, called variously in English a sea-devil, an angler, and a frog-fish. This creature is nearly all mouth, and when its skeleton is still whole it looks as though it is smiling an ecstatic smile far beyond the anatomical reach of any mammal, which it may in fact be doing.
The 1995 Bruce Willis vehicle, 12 Monkeys, was a remake of a 1962 film by the French director Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve (better known as Chris Marker), entitled La Jetée (which can mean, depending on context, either ‘The Jetty’ or ‘She Who Has Been Discarded’). The film is 26 minutes long, and consists, save for a single shot in which a pair of eyes open, entirely in black-and-white stills. It concerns a man who has been sent back in time by his captors in the wake of an apocalyptic war. One crucial difference between Terry Gilliam’s 1995 version and the original, beyond the fact that the later iteration is a typical live-action movie, is that in the original there is a lengthy scene (several minutes, and thus a good part of the whole) that unfolds in a place called the ‘Gallery of Zoology’, purportedly located in the Jardin des Plantes, even if in reality, today, no such thing can be found anywhere in the Muséum complex. It is the happiest scene in the film, the first fully successful attempt, after several failures, to send the hero back in time. He is at once enthralled by the phenomenological richness of the preapocalyptic world. Appearing suddenly in the Jardin des Plantes, the time-traveller is delighted to recall that things such as gardens ever existed. He and the mysterious woman, whom he is sent back in time to find, look together at a section from a giant sequoia; he tells her he comes from beyond all of its rings, and they laugh.
The Gallery of Zoology represents a deeper circle of this incomprehensibly rich nature into which he has been reintroduced. Even dead and stuffed (or ‘naturalized’, as the common French term for taxidermy tellingly has it), even boiled down until only the bones remain, the animals continue to disconceal nature’s astounding plenitude. They mount a visual argument for why one should wish to stay in this world. The scene begins with the rather more comical species: silicon models of narwhals and polar bears, orcas and sea-lions: big, bulbous creatures that stare back at you. The two characters are surrounded by dead creatures, but the mood is life-affirming. Animal life consists, one might conclude, in animal beauty, and this is hardly diminished even when the capacity for vital motion is subtracted. The scene finishes with several serene stills showing the couple looking at stuffed exotic birds. Here we have life at its fullest, the rich phenomenal flow of life, represented by freeze-frames of dead animals. Yet add to this the historical fact that the natural historians who founded the collection were creationists intent on denying genetic flow from one species to another over time, and the scene from Marker’s film would seem to be a veritable investigation of the theme of staticness, of discreteness, if not of deadness exactly then at least of inanimation. How are we to make sense of this contradiction, between the vitality of the scene and all the many ways it forecloses on the possibility of motion and continuity? One might suppose that by his very choice of freeze-frames, a choice previously unknown in cinematic history (indeed a choice in favor of non-cinema), which seems to aim to go back before this history ever started and rediscover a more primitive form of visual narration, Marker is seeking to revive a sort of Buffonian aesthetic: of life as an order rather than as a flow, and of marvel that arises from the still contemplation of this order. This is, needless to say, the sort of scene in which Bruce Willis’s best talents could not have shone through.
But where is this ‘Gallery of Zoology’? Is it only a feature of Marker’s science-fiction universe? In 1965, in fact, just a few years after Marker’s film was shot, the Gallery of Zoology, which was first opened in 1889, underwent a major renovation, and came out restyled the ‘Great Gallery of Evolution’. Promotional materials in the gift shop today will tell you that by the 1960s, the old zoological collection had begun to gather dust, that it had grown ‘intellectually sterile’, and had come to represent an outdated and stuffy conception both of nature and of the social mission of museums. By the late 1970s, the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had made it his personal mission to see the gallery well-stocked and free of dust. Now, today, with its dim orange and purple wall-lighting, and glass staircases and elevators, the Great Gallery of Evolution has the feel of a boutique hotel bar, the kind that would be written up in an Air France in-flight magazine.
The parade of naturalized megafauna in the main hall is beautiful, but the spirit of it is heavy-handed, ahistorical, childish. This is supposed to be a gallery of evolution, yet one is put in mind of images of Noah’s Ark, of the happy beasts all lined up for disembarkation. Species are reified here, made into eternal mascots of humanity. A large portion of the main hall is carved out as a ‘Galerie des Enfants’, but in fact the whole place is for children. The descriptions that accompany the displays tell us nothing about the unique histories of the specimens. Other than a few condescending remarks here and there, about, for example, how people used to think narwhal tusks were the horns of unicorns, the exhibition is presented as if everything in it belonged to a sort of eternal present, as if how all this stuff got dug out and pieced together is all just back-story that need not bother the museum-goer in search of a shiny, well-lit spectacle. The tone is relentlessly educational, with plaques and touch-screens constantly asking ‘Did you know that…?’, and encouraging you to ‘test your knowledge’. Yet in spite of this unremitting celebration of learning (a spirit that will also be familiar to any visitor at the creation-science museum of Petersburg, Kentucky), it is difficult to see how one could really learn anything here at all. The Great Gallery of Evolution is a place of transit, somewhere to take the kids on a hot day, a monument to the idea of learning that has thoroughly concealed all the learning that brought it into existence, a learning that remains on such vivid display across the garden at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy. The two galleries represent, one might say, the two possible trajectories of the natural history museum.
What am I doing here? What kind of adult goes to a museum like this? I mean an adult who does not have a child in tow. I mean a proper, auto-edifying, end-in-him-or-herself adult. These days, museums that are not about art are about nature, nature is about science, science is about education, and education, as we know, is for the kids, insofar as they, finally, are the future. Art for the grown-ups, then, nature for the kids. But since education must be fun, it’s out with the rancid body parts in formaldehyde with calligraphic labels in Latin; in with the touch screens that tell you, as if you did not already know this since the age of two or so, that dinosaurs are birds, that Pluto is no longer a planet, and, in case you forgot this for a fraction of a second, that learning is fun. But all this thoroughly ideological rebranding requires money, which, as I’ve already suggested, the best museums of natural history do not have. Or which, perhaps, in the case of the stunning, sublimely unreconstructed Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, they scorn, because they understand why this stuff matters, why it is worth looking at, even, or perhaps especially, if you are not a kid, and no longer strictly speaking need to be educated, and certainly no longer need your education to come sugar-coated in fun.
The Great Gallery of Evolution has been proudly called by those responsible for its revamping, the ‘Louvre of natural history’, in reference of course to that airport-like complex over on the Right Bank, with its escalators and its crowds, where you can go and clamor, along with hoards of other foreigners just like you, to catch a glimpse, or snap an amateur photo, across a panel of protective glass, of the Mona Lisa.
I hate art museums. Just thinking about the Louvre makes my feet tired, my groin sweat, my cafeteria-homing instinct kick in. My academic peers would have me believe, though, that it is at the art museum that I belong. Yet here I am, a humanist by training, in the summer of my 40th birthday, returning again and again to the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy. What am I doing here? Why can I, a grown man, not respect that firm if unspoken rule: art for the grown-ups, nature for the kids? I am happy to leave the Great Gallery of Evolution to the next generation, but it seems to me this other gallery needs to be reclaimed for the adults. This gallery functions for me as aide to philosophy: it triggers reflection upon the unity within the multiplicity of nature; upon the predicament of mortal corporeal substances such as, but not only, ourselves; and upon what still remains in a certain sense the utter implausibility of there ever being such a person, to speak with Immanuel Kant, as a ‘Newton for the blade of grass’, that is, someone who could give an exhaustively adequate account of why living nature does what it does, in the same way Isaac Newton did for billiard balls and projectiles (of course, we have had Watson and Crick, the unravelling of DNA, the mapping of the genome, etc, yet as information of this sort accumulates, the sense does not diminish that the thing that really interests us about the living world, its irreducible beauty, is not being addressed).
The natural history museum is in this respect unscientific if not anti-scientific. It works like art. Or, rather, it is art, even if this is not all it is. The art of natural history is something that Damien Hirst well understood with his shark and so on. If there is any fraudulence in Hirst’s work, the blame is entirely on the side of the spectator, who did not realize that natural history museums had already been delivering substantially the same spectacle for several centuries. At the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, we are looking at a certain genre of modern European art. The remains on display are both the things themselves, and at the same time representations of the things: representations according to the vision of nature of the naturalists who collected and displayed the things (and who did not at all share in today’s reigning ideology of science education, its importance for the kids’ future, etc.). And this is what is thrown away when natural history museums are renovated: a window onto nature provided by keen-sighted naturalists, who also brought with them a now-unfashionable aesthetic and philosophical sensibility about nature that is worth preserving as much as the things themselves are.
The project of exhaustively collecting and describing the basic kinds of large animal, and analyzing and displaying these animals’ bodily parts and systems, is one that gained momentum in the late Renaissance and that was largely completed by the end of the 19th century. Like, say, realist painting in the Western tradition, it is a project that has a bounded history (indeed the two histories overlap one another fairly closely). This means that an alpaca intestine displayed in formaldehyde is a sample of a part of a South American camelid, but it is also, simultaneously, an artefact of a modern European knowledge project. In this respect a proper natural history museum, that is to say an unreconstructed adult natural history museum, is really two museums at once: it is a museum of nature, but also a museum of the history of a very singular attempt to know nature quite literally inside-out. The dual aspect of the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, as both a museum of the diversity of nature and a museum of the history of natural history, is what has been covered over in the Great Gallery of Evolution, with its whale skeletons and naturalized dromedaries reduced to mere decorations, like some safari-themed restaurant. I will not go back there. I would much rather be here at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy: this museum of fossils that is also a fossil of an extinct species of museum.
I have described my purpose here as ‘thinking about life’, preferring to let a certain ambiguity linger as to whether I had my own life in mind, or life in general. In fact I am beginning to think that it was a certain hope about the inseparability of these two levels that brought me here in the first place. This is an antiquated idea, one that began its decline when, toward the end of the Renaissance, the picture of the individual man as a microcosm of the world began to lose in plausibility. With the beginning of the modern era, men began to sign their names to things, to highlight the peculiarity of their own individual trajectories, their autobiographies. It is not that I do not think there is anything interesting about me in particular, but only that, I am beginning to suspect, whatever this is might best be discovered by taking the broadest possible scope, by thinking about the order of living beings as a whole, of which I am a momentary expression: a fleeting finite mode of infinite substance, to speak with Spinoza; a clustering of momentary quality atoms, to speak with certain Buddhists. So yes, it is my life I am interested in, ultimately, but I suspect something can be learned from reflection upon life in general.
My father wanted me to be an entomologist. He always insisted that to know one domain inside and out was to have true knowledge, and that however small that domain might be, it could serve as a point of access to everything else. I said: insects, boring. But what I meant was not so much ‘boring’ as ‘too mundane’, ‘not sufficiently profound-seeming’. I recalcitrated, and went in search of the most profound thing to study, which for a long while I took to be philosophy, understood as the investigation of Being as such, rather than this or that variety of beings. But I could never remove my thoughts too far from the things that crawl and slither and emit semen and lactate –the beings–, and I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation that was technically in philosophy, but that focused on the impact of the discovery of microorganisms on metaphysical debates in the 17th century about the organic structure of nature. It is as if I ended up partially fulfilling my father’s wishes for me, in spite of my life-long intention not to do so.
I don’t know what the study of philosophy has done for me, other than to provide a contrast to the sort of knowledge that, I have long since come to believe, really matters: knowledge of bare facts about the world, about the structure of the scutes in a glyptodon’s shell, for example. I don’t know if this makes me a bad philosopher, as I often claim of myself, not out of false humility but as an expression of genuine regret at having chosen the wrong vocation; or if, rather, it amounts in its own way to an approach to philosophy, in particular, an approach that holds, against Martin Heidegger, for example, and other puffed-up embodiments of profundity, that there is no way to get to Being except through beings, and that the study of beings –by which we’ve really only ever meant living beings– is therefore where it’s at.
This preoccupation with bare facts is certainly not a sort of science-fetishism or stubborn turning away from the profound things, but only a different understanding of how best to access these things. I think no one has expressed this understanding more lucidly than Vladimir Nabokov, who, when asked by a student at Cornell what the formula is for being a great writer, is said to have replied: “Learn the names of trees.” I assume that here the Russian author took writing as equivalent to thinking, and I assume also that, in their own way, the natural historians who built this institution that has so captured my imagination had a similar understanding of the connection between identifying, naming, and classifying the things of nature, on the one hand, and thinking, real thinking, on the other.
There are names in abundance here in the Gallery, written in Latin, in calligraphy, on stained and yellow labels. Many of these names are antiquated; if you try to search for them in Google, the engine that supposedly knows everything will ask you if you are not in fact searching for something else. A search for Cervis Aristotelis, ‘Aristotle’s deer’, elicits the question whether I did not in fact mean to search for ‘service aristocratique’. Learning the names of things, as Nabokov instructed, certainy does not mean learning the real names of things, as in the uniquely correct way of referring to some creature. The names come and go, and even Linnean nomenclature, the most stable system we have for speaking of the natural world, is in constant flux. Learning the names of things is, rather, gaining an appreciation for the rich variety of ways people in different times and places have denoted the variety of things in nature. Here, the so-called vulgate or popular language is certainly as rich as the Latin binomials. Nabokov for his part relished the common names, and much of his literary craft amounts to a trans-linguistic celebration of the fertility of plant talk. Thus in one stunning passage he causes his heroine Ada to speak of the “ciel de lit which Fowlie turns into ‘the sky’s bed’ instead of ‘bed ceiler’...The forged louis d’or in that collection of fouled French is the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’ — although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, maybubble, and many other nicknames associated with fertility feasts, whatever those are.” And imagine if Nabokov had turned his attention to animals, or even to mushrooms? Just think of the proliferation of folk mycological terms: the Audubon Field Guide to North American mushrooms tells us, for example, of Shaggy Parasol, Imperial Cat, Big Laughing Gym, Northern Tooth, Spongy-Footed Tooth, Bearded Tooth, Spreading Yellow Tooth, Hairy Parchment, to name a few.
These are all just folk terms, and so, since the beginning of the 18th century anyway, are not the real names of anything. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. But classification is just one of the things we do with language; evocation, or conjuring, is another. Often, in fact, the Linnean name for a thing picks out features of it in a seemingly arbitrary way, features that seem to have little to do with what we associate with a given creature. In this respect it is often better not to know Greek or Latin, if one wants the name of the creature to resonate. I, for example, was disappointed when my Greek became good enough to notice that glyptodon means nothing more than ‘carved tooth’. As if the shape of that giant, lumbering armadillo’s teeth had anything to do with its essence! Much better to just hear the sound, glyptodon, and to picture the beast, as it is not hard for the un-Hellenized to do, as a being that naturally embodies that sound.
Folk names work differently. They do not pick out some arbitrary and contingent feature of a being (a glyptodon would, after all, still be the being it is even if its teeth were otherwise than they are), but instead zero in on the most salient properties of a being, the properties that could not be subtracted without annihilation of the being itself, the properties that the philosophical tradition has associated with essence. That this essence is plainly related to human concerns (think, for example, of the folk name for the Xylaria polymorpha mushroom: ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’) does not compromise its status as essence, since the folk see the world anthropocentrically, as thrown up around them for their own purposes, edification, and temptation. One may suspect that it was a certain sort of human concern, literature, that caused Nabokov to value knowledge of the naming of trees so highly.
It may be that I am a bad philosopher, but I am happy with beings, and have little patience for Being. There are other books I am supposed to be writing right now, but I’d rather be here, learning the names of beings from these jaundiced cursive labels: the killer whale is an orcq; the mole is a taupe. The armadillo, a tatou.
But I have been writing about this place in Paris as if it were in a city that has only known peacetime. Giraffes and elephants running loose in wartorn cityscapes, inadvertently liberated from their confinements by some airplane’s stray droppings, are a familiar trope of film and literature (Kusturica, Jonze, Pynchon). They epitomize, through surreal whimsy, the breakdown of ordinary social relations wrought by war. The mass murder and rape that war brings represents, at a much grimmer register, the very same thing as the sight of a lost giraffe on Kurfürstendamm: that our cities have reverted to animality, that the ordinary division between humans and animals –humans walking freely yet within the invisible restraints of morality; animals existing outside of the realm of morality yet kept safely in their cages– has collapsed.
Peace and prosperity are required in order for a city’s animal menagerie to not appear outrageous. When things turn sour, the people will want to know: how is it that they are being fed while we have it so hard? And if they are not being fed, how dare we presume to make them stay among us? Exotic animals, in particular, the prized possessions and reliable revenue bringers of modern zoos, have often symbolized the power and opulence of regimes that are, almost by definition, called into question in wartime. What creature, then, has lived modern European history more completely than Louis XV’s so-called ‘Rhinocéros de Versailles’? Its very epithet suggests all the plated bulk and inflexibility of the ancien régime. This male Indian rhinoceros, whose transit from Bengal to Paris in 1770 cost more than half the annual salary of a French naval officer, is reported to have been stabbed to death during a riot at Versailles in September, 1793.
One can easily imagine the scene when the angry, desperate Sans Culottes came upon the animal. Rhinoceroses had long been represented as regal creatures in Europe; between 1515, when Albrecht Dürer made his famous wood-cut of an armored behemoth, and Louis XV’s acquisition, there had been a handful of celebrity rhinoceroses on tour through France, Germany, England, and the Low Countries, including a certain Clara, who toured the continent between 1741 and 1758, greeted by sovereigns and artists, causing portraits and souvenirs to be made wherever she went, and even having a ship of the French navy christened ‘Le Rhinocéros’. Representations of the animal from Dürer on exaggerate the armor-likeness of its skin, making it out to be some sort of plated, mobile siege engine. A king’s intentional association with such a beast, with its unmistakably martial anatomy, could not but seem to the revolutionaries, one imagines, an invitation for attack. But unlike a battle car, the rhinoceros’s body is a product of evolution, and its defenses are approximate. The Sans Culottes found its soft spot.
After two days of puzzling over how to transport ‘this great mass’, the remains of the rhinoceros were put on a wagon and transported to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, which had been created by decree of the revolutionary National Convention on June 10, 1793, on the grounds of the former Jardin Royale des Plantes. The body was kept there for two nights, under a tent and under constant guard against dogs, until Louis Daubenton (1716-1800) arrived to begin his anatomical study. Thanks to him, we know that the rhinoceros measured 325 centimeters from the tip of its horn to its anus. In another neighborhood of Paris, at nearly the same moment, a new system of weights and measures was being worked out. In 1791, the French Academy of Sciences had defined the meter as one ten-millionth of the length of the earth’s meridian. And so, in the revolutionary spirit, the horn-to-anus length of the royal rhinoceros came to be inscribed in an absolute system of measurements, came to be seen in relation to a fully quantifiable, and thus fully knowable, world. It was no longer a curiosity, or a display of royal majesty, but rather a reflection of natural order, an order that, in the revolutionary spirit of the era, many believed would soon be known in full.
Knowledge of this order, however, was not yet scientific knowledge, not in our sense. It was, rather, still being pursued under the banner of ‘natural history’. There is surely no single figure who better embodies this largely forgotten tradition than George Louis Leclerc, le comte de Buffon (1707-1788), who from 1739 served as intendant of the Jardin du Roi, and presided over the transformation of its cabinet of curiosities into a proper museum of natural history, complete with its own gallery of comparative anatomy. Between 1749 and his death just one year before the revolution, Buffon wrote the 36 volumes of the Histoire naturelle that would effectively define the scope and aims of the discipline. If we were to attempt to characterize natural history in just a few words, we might say that it is the approach to nature that lies between Renaissance curiosity and late modern science. Like the curiosi who preceded them, the natural historians are interested in the singular productions of nature, the individual two-headed lamb, narwhal tusk, or frozen chunk of woolly mammoth. But they are interested in these objects not simply as curiosities, portents, or deviations. Instead, they look to them for what they can reveal about nature as a whole. Natural history, then, is the search for natural order through meticulous attention to nature’s particular productions.
Unlike ‘science’, however, which existed as a term since the Renaissance but arguably did not take the conceptual shape it has for us until well into the 19th century, natural history remains concerned with what we would consider aesthetic notions, such as majesty and elegance, and beauty. The supreme lesson of natural history, for Buffon, is that living nature is the product of innumerable variations upon a single idea, and that in studying these variations we are able to “admire equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design.” Thus Buffon asks his reader to “take a human skeleton, turn the pelvic bones; shorten the bones of the thighs, the legs, and the arms; lengthen those of the feet and the hands; fuse all of the digits, lengthen the jaw by shortening the frontal bone; and, finally, also lengthen the spine.” Once these minor operations have been carried out, “this skeleton will no longer represent the remains of a man, but will be the skeleton of a horse.” The ‘hidden resemblance’ between the two, Bonnet concludes, is more marvelous than the apparent differences, for it reveals to those who attend to it the order behind apparent disorder: the unity behind the multiplicity. Buffon believed that such an order could only be the work of an intelligent designer, which is to say of a god. And here we come to yet another remarkable feature of natural history: it is, by our own scientific standards, dead wrong about the sources of natural order and about the place of humanity within that order.
Buffon, the intendant of the Royal Gardens who died of kidney stones just a year before the storming of the Bastille, embodies the ancien régime in more ways than one. In the First through Fifth Republics, French children would learn animal stories from picture books with names like Le Buffon choisi. He became a loveable storyteller, and stood scarcely closer to science in the public imagination than did Jean de La Fontaine, the 17th-century fabulist and father of the modern French nursery tale. From a certain perspective, Buffon was himself a fabulist: he was entirely incapable of approaching nature as a value-neutral realm, indifferent to human preferences and expectations. It is thanks to him that the lion is known by that tiresome cliché, ‘the king of the beasts’, and he seems really to have believed that royalty could be legitimately projected out from Versailles to the African savannah. For Buffon, nature is divided up into ‘noble’ animals, such as the lion, the rhinoceros, and the elephant; and ‘degenerate’ ones, such as camels and hyenas. The fact that Buffon saw all North American fauna as degenerate was at once a conservative judgment in favor of the Old World and its institutions (the rotting carcass of a female moose sent to him by Thomas Jefferson did not help to change his mind).
Buffon’s commitment to the philosophical doctrine of Empiricism somehow licensed, to his mind, a thoroughgoing anthropocentrism, in which we should “take the objects that interest the most in view of the relations that they have with us,” and from there “pass little by little to those that are further away and more unfamiliar to us.” This “simple and natural fashion of considering things,” Buffon thinks, “is preferable to the most advanced and developed methods, because… in comprehending the whole it is more agreeable and more useful to us to consider things in relation to us than from any other point of view.”2 If we only have our senses to rely on, as Empiricism teaches, then we can only work our way out from our own, very limited point of view in the effort to apprehend the world as it really is. This limitation suited Buffon just fine.
The Gallery of Comparative Anatomy is largely a product of Buffon’s vision. Visiting today, one learns that comparative anatomy “studies the form and function of organs, and particularly the skeleton. It makes it possible to estimate the degrees of kinship [parenté] and to understand the adaptations of animal species.” But this account is not entirely faithful to the institution’s history, since, after all, the bulk of the collection was assembled by avowed creationists like Buffon. This talk of ‘kinship’ was a later addition, a concession to the spirit of the times. The gallery has been in its current location since 1898, when Albert Gaudry (1827-1908) designed it in accordance with the most sophisticated museological principles of late-19th-century science, which was of course by then thoroughly Darwinian. But these principles rest upon the deeper substratum of natural history, which in turn builds on the zeal of the Renaissance curiosi. In its earlier stages, the order discerned in nature, the resemblances and affinities, hardly settled the matter of how things got to be this way in the first place. In the 18th-century stage, which remains the one that most defines the scope and feel of the Gallery today, kinship meant nothing more than a sort of blueprint in God’s mind.
I don’t have the slightest idea what people mean when they affirm or deny the existence of God. But I do marvel at the order of nature, and I do so in a way, it seems to me, that leaves me more at home among the natural historians than among the scientists.
The sun was still high in the sky when I left the Gallery this evening, though in Paris in the summer the sun seems never to want to come down. We were being shooed out, and did not want to leave. Kids all around me were giddy, borderline-irritable. I heard one, a mere toddler, with thick round glasses, puzzling over the ontological problem of dinosaurs: how can they not exist (i.e., be extinct) yet still be real (i.e., not the mere product of fables)? I was, as usual, the only person at the Gallery by myself. I walked out into the Jardin des Plantes, past the exotic Araucania araucana tree at the Gallery’s exit, a spiky green jumble of branches colloquially known in parts of South America as the ‘Monkey’s Despair’. I went toward the menagerie of live animals. I found the enclosure of the dik-dik, and quickly managed to make eye contact with this diminutive antelope. I muttered, or felt as if I were about to mutter, something like: ‘Hail, creature of God’. The last two words of this silent salutation are strictly speaking redundant: to pick a being out as a creature is already to ground its being in a creation, performed by a creator. This is why ‘creature’ is not a scientific term. Now I am no friend of what is called ‘creationism’. But when I meet a deer in the forest, or a dik-dik at the zoo, it remains the case that this is an encounter with a creature. There is no other word for it.
This point might easily be mistaken for a version of the teleological argument for the existence of God, according to which we may infer, from the order of nature, the existence of an intelligent designer, just as one might infer the existence of a watchmaker from inspection of a watch. But I hate arguments for the existence of God, and I think the teleological is probably the worst of the lot. I have no interest in moving up from the deer to something supposedly better than it. But nor am I prepared to entirely abandon the category of creature in favor of quadruped, vertebrate, etc. To this extent it is in encounters with wild animals, usually living, but also sometimes dead, that I get a full blast of just how much religion is left in me.
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 ‘monsters’, which have two heads and are fused at the torso; and there are ‘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 l’usage 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 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’.3 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.
I have recently taken a position at a university in Paris, and am in this city, supposedly, to begin to settle in. At a stage in my career when the natural thing to do would have been to move to some idyllic campus town in Indiana or somewhere like that, where they would pay me a comfortable salary and enable me to own a home and a nice big car, to teach dumb frat boys who, by unspoken agreement, are not expected to learn a thing, instead I have accepted a rather more precarious position in a city that wears me down in spirit and in body. And now, rather than embracing this new life that I myself have chosen, here I am, instead, among these old bones, fantasizing about the dark abyss of paleontological time, and about the sublime and grotesque order of nature embodied in these dirty skeletons and pickled organs.
Our reasons for wanting to be where we want to be are often idiosyncratic, incommunicable. When I try to come up with a reason why I wish to be in Paris, the only faint glimmer of an idea that I can find is that I want to be close to this place: to the Jardin des Plantes, to its menagerie of dik-diks and ostriches, and, most of all, to the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy. It is not that I will spend my life in this building, and it is not that dusty old displays of natural history are entirely unique to this city. It is, rather, that this place embodies a certain intangible spirit that was once much more naturally associated with Paris, that has nothing to do with fashion, existentialism, rude waiters, the Eiffel Tower, the Panthéon, or, heaven forbid, the Louvre. It is the same spirit that motivated the foundation of the Jardin Royale des Plantes in 1626, which would gradually give rise to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle with all its various galleries.
In this spirit, it is among the foremost roles, and greatest distinctions, of a capital city that it be a center of natural knowledge, that it be a point of access to nature as a whole: a portal, through the very densest concentration of human culture, to the order of nature that lies beyond it. This, I think, is why I am in Paris.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website