The Victorian Animal
The Victorian Committee of The Graduate Center, CUNY
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Kelly Enright (firstname.lastname@example.org), Rutgers University
On Friday, May 4, 2007, The Victorian Animal conference convened at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Presentations focused on representations of animals, calling upon the tools and methods used during the nineteenth century to interpret animal lives.
Underlying all the papers was the effect of Darwin upon the era’s perception of the human-animal divide. Some of the most revealing discussions focused the variety of ways Victorians attempted to know, be, understand, or identify with the animal other. Without putting literal words in their mouths, many Victorians described animals as emotional and socially organized, in ways similar to contemporary human society. Even more scientific texts reflected social concerns and human relationships in their discussion of animal lives. Taken together, the presentations argued for finer distinctions between types of anthropomorphism, and further discussion of whether all manner of relating the human to the animal is as inauthentic as the word connotes.
In her talk, “Feeling Animal in the Nineteenth Century,” Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) called upon two tropes of ape representation: gorilla as monster and gorilla as human. Using popular illustrations and the text of DuChaillu, Mangum argued that without anthropomorphizing, he saw in the auditory expressions of gorilla emotion, a “horrid human likeness.” By revealing how gorillas in the nineteenth century were both monster and manlike, Mangum called into question the binaries often set up between the animal and the human.
Jonathan Smith’s (University of Michigan, Dearborn) “Good Breeding: Darwin and the Victorian (Domesticated) Animal” examined Darwin’s interest in breeding, and its relationship to the Victorian sense of their own social status. “Fanciers” bred animals for extremes of fashion, with accompanying intentions that had more to do with the preferences of aristocratic culture than the laws of natural selection. Thus incorporating animal reproduction into human culture, they elevated domesticated over wild creatures, making the animal more suited to human desires.
By contrast, George Levine’s (Rutgers University, Emeritus) eloquent talk, “The Squirrel’s Heartbeat,” highlighted the “otherness” of the animal world. How we can know, he asked, “a thing so wild and wildly different”? Focusing on the concept of “imaginative self transference” in Victorian Realist literature, he used animal and human examples as representative of the effort not just to know the other, but to “know what it is like to be the other”—to be empathetic without losing the self. Using Eliot, Hardy, Melville, and Lawrence, he illustrated the way animal lives figure into narratives only to emphasize the insignificance of those lives.
Looking at the scientific studies of George Henry Lewes and the fiction of George Eliot, Ivan Kreilkamp’s (Indiana University) “George Eliot’s Brute Life” focused on two strains of relating to animals—absorption and sacrifice. Both ways of knowing the other, he argued, reveal not attempts to understand, but self-serving analyses of the value of the other to the self. As Smith had illustrated for Victorian society, Kreilkamp does for literature, showing the perceived usefulness of the other to the self.
While the former presentations focused on the use of animals as symbolic tools of otherness, the next sought entries into the usefulness of real animals in the public realm. In “The Moment of Greyfriars Bobby: The Changing Cultural Position of Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Hilda Kean (Ruskin College, UK) recounted the stunning story of animal loyalty portrayed by a Scottish terrier who slept on the grave of his dead master. The memorialization of the dog came in the form of a statue hinting at a public recognition of animal emotion, sentience, and sense of themselves.
The conversation on pets continued with Kathleen Kete’s (Trinity College, Hartford) look at the “twinning” of children and animals in “Childhood and Pet-Keeping in the Victorian Imagination.” Kete argued that this supposed affinity between non-adult others was a false concept, just one manifestation of four ontologies used simultaneously to understand the animal world. Pet care was, in fact, primarily an adult activity, reflective of a desire to fill the void of modern life. Akin to Mangum’s presentation, these papers drew attention to the emotional lives of animals as something other than anthropomorphism—allowing animals a sense of self that is not wholly human, but human-like.
The final talks called into closer inspection the question of animal emotion, moving the focus from pets to wild creatures and further questioning whether human observation of animal behavior rightly interprets their intentions. Nigel Rothfels (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) began his talk, “Rogue: Understanding Violent Elephants in the Nineteenth Century,” with a critique of a 2006 New York Times article which professed elephants were “cracking-up.” That is, that humans are making elephants more violently wild. Rothfels carefully traces the origin of the “rogue elephant” to the mid-nineteenth century, convincingly illustrating how animal behavior was observed, represented, and subsequently sensationalized or sentimentalized, as culture-makers saw fit.
The final presentation further pushed the concept that anthropomorphism at the turn of the century did not always lead to a human-centered idea. Sarah Winter (University of Connecticut) argued in “The Case of the Insane Pigeon: Comparative Psychology and the Emotional Lives of Victorian Birds” that while Darwinian science called for empirical experiments in the lab, modern science reinstated the interdisciplinary nature and passion of the field scientist. She closed with a poignant question for Animal Studies scholars, asking whether objectivity is inseparable from observations of beauty? Can observation be both subjective and objective at the same moment?
The conference’s talks highlighted the ways in which humans interpret animal existence through cultural lenses. This often, as Rothfels emphasized, “has little to do with what elephants [or other animals] do or are.” Can we understand animals—as historic subjects, as literary objects, as artistic representations—as anything other than inhabitants of the imagination?
Discussion on this topic asked what happens to the animal when so much of the human is involved in perceiving and representing it. Mangum pointed out one result of anthropomorphism is that it figuratively kills the animal by animating it through one’s own emotions. Gerhard Joseph questioned if the desire to get away from anthropomorphism is a fantasy. And Harriet Ritvo reminded us that “anthropomorphism” is murkily defined, at best. Animal scholars would benefit from thinking about the strategies of Winter, Mangum, and Rothfels whose work here examined how representations of animal emotions are part of human culture, but which acknowledge the distinction between the animal and the animal-as-represented.
Review of "The Victorian Animal" Conference
Date Published: May 21, 2007