The animals feature in the imagination of various authors, from Darwin to Flaubert. Darwin writes superfluously on all manner of animals in his 1860 Voyage on the Beagle. While the notion of the origin that consumes Darwin is historical, animals are ahistorical, and therefore out of this world. It becomes immediately apparent, Darwin’s curiosity about animals, which appear in writing as the preserve of French and English modernity at this time. The preservation of dead animals is a kind of moral expression.
The other day I read in the journals of Polish writer Gustaw Herling on Flaubert's stuffed parrot: "Do you know, Madame, what I've had on my table in front of me for the last three weeks? A stuffed parrot. It sits there on sentry duty. The sight of it is beginning to irritate me. But I keep it there so that I can fill my head with the idea of parrothood. Because at the moment I am writing about the love between an old girl and a parrot."
There's the very clear connection between what Flaubert calls parrothood and fetish: the sense that the parrot watches over the author as they are writing, like a sentry. Parrothood, an exaggerated or flamboyant idea of fetish, related to charms and talismans worshipped by people from Africa. The irony with Flaubert's writing on parrothood is the language of power. It is almost as if possessing this object is an act of self-aggrandizement. Like the keeping of a trophy, the stuffed parrot represents the author's ego. It is a self-congratulatory gesture.
A language of power, which, here, is linked to creativity and parrothood, is obviously part of the expression of the male ego. It is Sartre’s notion that man feels himself the most when dominating another. Considering Flaubert's parrot, the maleness of hunting, preserving, collecting, and natural science emerges. Self-congratulation of the male ego is designed as fetish; self-congratulation of modernity.
I am recalling the provocative statement that animals have no history.1 Beyond human civilization; that is beyond nation, education, or religion, animals ruled. Pushing the boundaries of human civilization, natural science reached for the possibilities of discovering the unknown origins of animals. The world of animals, buoyed by Darwinism, fed into the scientific imagination. The possibility of an animal kingdom, for example, seemingly turned Europe upside down. This was a place free of European civilization, where the law of animal, not the law of man, ruled. Darwin's scientific work on the Beagle can be seen as its own form of creative madness; as obsessing over unknown spiders and centuries old mosses in the Brazilian forest, and frozen carcasses in the mountain ranges of Tierra del Fuego.
Darwin's excesses and successes give way to political uses of science. It is quite contradictory that the museum, a temple of human civilization, should focus so much on animals which have no history. Animals are objectified in the natural sciences, and within natural history. Even the bird, that Greco-Roman myth, is destroyed in flocks. This shows that a transgressive language of power is vibrant in scientific experimentation. Darwin's theory on the history of destruction is unfavourable towards the world in which he lives. That same world which frowns on his obsession with dead plants. His botany for which his father attempts to disown him, is antithetical to the character of Victorian society. With an unsupportive father, Darwin suffers. It is Fitz Roy, the naval captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, who is the champion of Darwin's science.
Darwin writes in 1845:
"I have stated in the preface to the first Edition of this work, and in the zoology of the voyage of the Beagle, that it was in consequence of a wish expressed by Captain Fitz Roy, of having some scientific person on board, accompanied by an offer from him of giving up part of his own accommodations, that I volunteered my services, which received, through the kindness of the hydrographer, Captain Beaufort, the sanction of the Lords of the Admiralty. As I feel that the opportunities which I enjoyed of studying the Natural History of the different countries we have visited have been wholly due to Captain Fitz Roy, I hope I may here be permitted to repeat my gratitude to him; and to add that, during the five years we were together, I received from him the most cordial friendship and steady assistance. Both to captain Fitz Roy and all the officers of the Beagle I shall ever feel most thankful for the kindness with which I was treated during our long voyage."
Darwin's diary on the Puma displaces violence to the third person. It is the native who acts violently towards this animal, which is sometimes called a lion in the passage. The Puma is captured with a bolas, and killed with the attack of spears. The scene is haunting. It seems to me that Darwin is unaware of his own power to effect violence, nor does it occur to him to destroy this animal in order to possess it entirely. But where is the animal carcass? He gives no evidence of scientific experimentation with the Puma—dead or alive. Darwin is fascinated with carcasses. His carcasses are both objects of curiosity and scientific specimen. He writes to botanist Asa Gray: "Don't forget to send me the carcass of your half-bred African cat, should it die."2
The image of Okapi by Harry Johnston is a collector's item, such that like Flaubert's parrot it may become a sentry for creative impulses. And because of this the image can be a fetish but not a great work of art. Its otherworldly nature may be spectacular for its time, especially as a kind of postcard image of Africa. The drawing shows Johnston's imagination, and his academic training. The proportions of the two Okapi are informed by classical modelling, particularly the contortion of the animal's body in an 'S' shape. The textures are taken from his photograph of the animal's skin.
As an agent of the British government in 1885, Johnston makes negotiations with a native chief at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Johnston took to botanical drawing and permaculture; often using the slaves given by the chief to bring him plant specimen. I am amused by Johnston's botanical interests. While waiting for negotiations with the Kilimanjaro chief to develop into a new British colony, he plants a garden on the Kilimanjaro slopes. Compared to Darwin's rigorous scientific investigations, Johnston seems like a talented amateur. And of course, we know that he is talented because his discoveries are catalogued by the Zoological Society in London as Crimsoni Johnstoni, which is a mountain flower, and this animal from the image, the Okapi Johnstoni.
Unlike Johnston, Darwin said, “I believe man to be in the same predicament with other animals.” This statement goes beyond the curiosity both naturalists have about animals. The thought that we could be like animals does not cross Johnston’s mind. All through this quest for the Okapi, we’re in some elaborate adventure. His general naivety towards animals—and not his scientific curiosity—is what makes violence possible. Unlike Darwin, Johnston is caught between his own self-congratulation of parrothood and the science of discovery. Johnston’s boredom with Africa is all the more revealing. His ambitions do not sustain rigorous scientific study. Nor does his painting surpass mere illustration.
There is another story to the making of this image. On a visit to the colonial exhibition of Belgian Congo, Johnston finds a group of Twas displayed alongside the animals. He makes a fuss. Gets them out of the exhibition. Then he gets to chatting with them while returning them to Congo. He asks about an animal, half-horse and half-zebra, that Stanley had seen in the Congo. They confirm it exists. And tell him they know where it is. He follows them, but only secures the Okapi's dried hide.
Image credit: All images available in public domain.