Monday, October 30, 2017

Peter Sahlins's "1668: The Year of the Animal in France"

Peter Sahlins is Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, 1668: The Year of the Animal in France, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The conversations about and descriptions of the Royal Menagerie, coming at the end of the Promenade de Versailles [by Madeleine de Scudéry, published in 1669), support this reading. The Promenade is part guidebook, part “gallant description,” part “Story of Célanire,” and part conversation … the discussion at the menagerie discloses an important characteristic of the site: it is less a source of science than of the civilizing process, here expressed in literary terms.
The page 99 test makes my book seem as though it’s for a largely literary crowd – that, in this case, it might be about the infamous French salonnière Scudéry – but it’s not. I draw widely across the disciplines, to capture in my net a hitherto under-documented appearance of a huge array of animals in many different media in and around 1668, from the decorative arts and tapestry, to lectures on physiognomy, to the design of the fabled animals in the Royal Labyrinth, and to pamphlets about medical scandals involving animal blood transfusion.  What did this sudden visibility of animals, this “animal moment,” 450 years ago, mean? Animals, I argue, were good to think (I unapologetically invoke the famous phrase of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss).  In 1668, they were especially good to rethink certain fundamental changes in ideas about governance, about nature, and about animals themselves.  I introduce a neologism  – “Renaissance humanimalism” – to describe the world that was superseded, but never completely, in 1668; and I tell the stories of artists and weavers, courtiers and virtuosi, and others who were opponents and supporters of the two towering figures that dominate the great mutation of 1668: Louis XIV and René Descartes. In the shadow of these giants – representing versions of absolutism and mechanism -- animals were critical agents in the imagining of new world views.

It all started with the Royal Menagerie at Versailles, first conceived in 1664, and largely completed by 1668.  The Menagerie was dominated by graceful avian species. The birds and (fewer) mammals of of Versailles staged  a new model of animal spectatorship, one with deep political and cultural implications. On page 99, I write that “The Menagerie is less a source of science than of the civilizing process, here expressed in literary terms.” The “civilizing process,” adapted from the German sociologist Norbert Elias, could be extended to make sense of the uses of animals in the realm of politics, but also in the  world of literature and other media including media of medical pamphlets, painting, tapestry, sculpture, garden design, and more.

Finally, page 99 contains my core thesis about the Royal Menagerie, itself at the center of the Year of the Animal in 1668, where it all began.  As René Magritte might have put it, “this not a zoo.” Although the dead bodies of the Versailles’ animals quickly found their way onto Claude Perrault’s dissecting table of (as of the spring of 1668, if not earlier), such was not the intentional design of Louis XIV’s menagerie. At its founding, the Royal Menagerie was a work of of splendor rather than of science. It was allegory before it was zoology, and it was literary before it was social.  In the end, page 99 passes the test.
Learn more about 1668: The Year of the Animal in France at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue