Louise Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots; Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2002)
Just who was it who did the drawing of the noble peasant that Douglas Gordon owned and which had been created for or inspired by Rousseau's Divin du village? Was it Greuze? I forget, but the point is that not only were perceptions of social stereotypes and groups changing, these changes can only rarely be characterized as "elite" or "popular." With a change of clothes, this particular "noble" peasant could well have passed as a brother of Louis XV.
Bob Isherwood, in Farces and Fantasies, sought to show that
a sense of wonder, joy, amusement, etc. came over virtually every
onlooker as they watched jugglers perform or monkeys cavort about. To be
sure, courtly cultured individuals and non-courtly cultured individuals
gestured differently toward the juggler, held their heads differently,
etc., and perhaps one retained laughter more than the other as the
high-rope walker fell; but the hierarchies and the nuances might not
fall into two distinct modes. Wolfram Fischer demonstrated that
hierarchies prevailed on the factory floor, not individual workers and
employers. Indeed, there were (and are) layers of hierarchy, except,
perhaps, where there are distinct categories in addition to hierarchy —
e.g., to be or not to be a cadre in the SNCF! Cadre here resembles
fonctionnaire, a break-point between hierarchies.
Louise Robbins' beautiful, indeed wonderful book, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots; Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2002) distinguishes between locally domestic animals and imported, exotic ones — the latter being her subject. She scarcely revisits what Sir Keith Thomas observed about the hierarchies in the animal kingdom (though the lion was both exotic and noble), because she is seeking to discern other features of natural and social-cultural history. And she is highly successful. Buffon's presence looms over the work, and thus the limitations and strengths of understanding animals (and humans) in eighteenth- century Paris is considerably advanced. There are chapters on the transport of animals, the royal menagerie, fairs, fights, the Oiseleur's Guild, parrots, animals in print, and elephant slaves. The general framework turns on whether or not animals suffered in captivity — as the eighteenth- century understood slavery and liberty and living in "nature." Perhaps the chapter on the Oiseleurs is the single most original and satisfying, for the precision and hitherto unknown facts that only notarial archives can provide.
Dr. Robbins is not afraid to tackle difficult questions, the changing fashionableness of the ménagerie (p. 47) being an example (so general as to be not quite convincing); but it is in the general exploration of "liberty" for animals and birds, and the sense of "enslavement" that by analogy slips to some people, that in rich detail seems to be the almost "structural" relation pervading the work. The examples of young women feeling imprisoned by their families and realizing that their caged birds are in the same state (p. 134) are remarkable. Louis XIII released the birds in the royal ménagerie after his guards had assassinated Concini; he did not wish to have them in prison now that he himself was free.
The familial power relations and even erotic projections by males (Diderot on a Greuze painting, p. 142) grounded on relations with animals (Fragonard's young woman in bed with a dog) are both a continuity (Dutch genre painting: the empty cage, the broken pitcher) and evidence of enhanced sensibility. Dressing up pets, exotic or otherwise, revealed (reveals!) some of the deeper impulses to possess and extend the self that may be primordial, in Geertz's sense of the term. One has only to think of fables to suggest the continuities — from the natural to the social. In Panat in the 1970s, a retired peasant named Ludovic Lacombe insisted on having some baby chicks around, not to raise them and eat them, but to be able to caress them.
And animals were, and indeed still are the victims. Did the harsh slave owner also brutalize his horses and pets? This relation between human behavior and cruelty in general is certainly articulated in the eighteenth century in ways still not entirely linked to class; but class certainly was perceived more then, than it was in Montaigne's sixteenth century. The scientific racism of the nineteenth century invariably associated animals — exotic ones included — and non-caucasian peoples, as a way of categorizing both.
Dr. Robbins' study of attitudes toward elephants brings together all the themes in the book. Thought to be the most intelligent of animals, and also the most "human," the well-trained elephant is part of the "downstairs" of Western elite culture. A slave servant who likes to please, a hard worker and companion, the elephant is perceived in incredibly stereotypical terms. There seems to have been little attention to differences (African versus Indian, for example), or close observation of their actual behavior. The engraving showing them copulating in what is sometimes called the "missionary position" is a remarkable example of some artist's view of what it is to be a human, projected on elephants. While the greater possibility of ferocity in the males was noted, there seemed no reason not to consider them as royal subjects (p. 98).
I have no criticisms of this learned, engaging book. True, the ideas about curiosity and the exotic might have been developed a bit more. Did the decline of cabinets occur in the same way as the decline of ménageries? Antoine Schnapper's work, and Krystof Pomian's, come to mind; but the author has accomplished much and cannot be expected to have done more. The bourgeois royalism of Babar is scarcely apparent here.