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Five Minutes with Peter Sahlins on 1668: The Year of the Animal in France

Your book is about the importance of animals - in life, in art, and in philosophy - in late-17th century. You describe 1668 as “the year of the animal,” but this year is really in the middle of a decade during which the culture was rapidly and radically shifting. Can you talk about the importance of this year, and why you chose it as representative for the period of time you cover in the book?

I admit that the title of this book,1668, is a bit of a conceit, not only because the main events occur in 1667 and 1668, but also because the cultural transformations I describe did take place unevenly over a long decade from the period following the advent of Louis XIV in 1661 to the construction of the Royal Labyrinth in Versailles in 1674. Like most ‘68s, then, this one was at least a decade long, both in the making and in its consequences!  Still, 1668 is not only representative or symbolic of a broader change; it is also and above all a chronological fact. In the space of an 18 month span (1667-68), animals were displayed, dissected, drawn, painted, woven, and used in aesthetic theory, philosophical debates, medical practices, and garden architecture. And then they disappeared from the historical stage. What I mean by this is that animals were still everywhere in everyday life, but no longer in the cultural spotlight (I’m tempted to say the sun light), no longer the principal subjects of scholarly and artistic concerns in the Age of Louis XIV. Historians, cultural critics, and others have missed this sudden appearance (and disappearance) of animals, this “flash” spectacle of an animal moment, and I wanted to figure out why it happened and what it meant. Inspired, if distantly and critically, by Foucault, I began to think of 1668 as a kind of “epistemic rupture” between two worldviews: the inherited one, that I called Renaissance humanimalism, and a new, modern one, Classical naturalism. In the book, I focus on how this shift articulates with the growth of absolutism and the spread of the new mechanistic philosophy, especially that of Rene Descartes. I thus follow Levi-Strauss in his infamous declaration about totemism that “animals are good to think” with by describing how a handful of well-connected intellectuals, artists, and writers at court made use of animals to represent (and enact) these changes in governance and in thinking about nature. But I also stress, pace Foucault and others, that while it is perfectly legitimate to isolate single years – the book belongs to the genre of “year books” that counter the historical profession’s current fascination with Big History. One must remember that it is equally important to trace how creative individuals borrowed from both sides of an epistemological divide in putting together new ideas about animals and about absolutism and mechanism.

Can you briefly summarize your arguments about the importance of animals in the culture of absolutism being created by Louis XIV early in his reign, in the 1660s? You describe how they were used to simultaneously portray two seemingly contradictory claims: that animals in court life had a civilizing impact, and that animality lurked in the heart of the king’s subjects. How do these views fit together?

The book is about a phenomenon that scholars have on the whole ignored – the centrality of animals in the formative years of the Sun King’s absolutist regime. I argue that, first and foremost, the peaceable and exotic birds kept in the newly completed Royal Menagerie in the gardens of Versailles in 1668 were central to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process,” where ritualized, graceful, and polite forms of behavior replaced violent and “brutish” practices. Elias links this process to the rise of court society, and specifically Louis XIV, and I’m expanding on his work by considering specifically how animals functioned in this transformation. It turns out that the peaceable display of exotic, placid creatures – mostly birds – that populated the menagerie helped to model civilized behavior at court. But after 1668, the year in which the bodies of animals from the menagerie and elsewhere became the object of philosophical debate, anatomical dissection, aesthetic theory, and the decorative arts, animals assumed a new valence. From a position of moral superiority, animals found their status devalorized, as they became identified with the baser instincts of humans. In some ways, there’s nothing new about this view of animals and of subjects: the Latin poet Plautus coined the adage “man is a wolf to man.” Hobbes appropriated this and, to a certain extent so to did Louis XIV, whose practice of absolutism was justified by the disorderly, violent, animal nature of man. But rather than see this as part of what a certain anthropologist has called “the western illusion of human nature,” I study the transformation of thinking about animals as a historical phenomenon. I tell the story of how this second position (about the animality of human subjects) tended to supersede the first (about the elevated position of animals) without entirely displacing it, thus giving French absolutism an identity distinct from England or elsewhere.

The other big argument in the book is about Descartes. How do animals bring Louis XIV and Descartes together?

Descartes died in 1650. Before 1668, the touchstone issue was Descartes’ materialist understanding of the Eucharist, which had already won him a place on the Papal Index and the censure and censorship of Louis XIV and the ruling intellectual (and Aristotelian) elite. But in and around 1668, many of his works, including the previously published Discourse on the Method (1643), found an extended readership. This was the result of a concerted effort by his acolytes to turn Descartes into a good Catholic and Frenchman. But in the Year of the Animal, the debate shifted to Descartes’s “beast-machine,” the central issue that served as a philosophical foil – a kind of fable about – the dualism of mind and body within a new materialist philosophy. At that very moment, the Royal Menagerie was completed, the newly founded Royal Academy of Sciences began its dissections, the Gobelins Manufactory began to weave the king’s animals into a tapestry series, the Royal Academy of Art and Sculpture gave lectures on animal physiognomy, La Fontaine published his Fables (albeit not about the animals of the menagerie), a Cartesian virtuoso named Jean Denis attempted to transfuse blood from lambs to humans in an effort to prolong life (the first xenotransfusion), a chameleon began its journey that, in print, would take it into conversation with the high culture of the Parisian salons, and more. So the book is about a great historical coincidence – that of animals in1668 – but it is also about how the transformations wrought by this coincidence resulted not only in new (and devalorizing) attitudes towards animals, but also in a broader cultural mutation about governance (absolutism) and nature (mechanism) that announced a certain French modernity – one signaled, in part, by the devalorization suffered by animals.

So the book is about the uses of animals by the king, his courtiers, and elites in thinking about absolutism and mechanism. But there seems to be a tension in the work between the depiction of animals as a species and as individuals. What is the importance of this distinction in you argument?

One of the things that surprised me in researching this book was what might be called the radical individualism of animals in the minds of scientists, sculptors, artists, and even philosophers. Of course, we know that pet-keeping was widespread among elites, and that companion species were named and loved. When the salon host Madeleine de Scudery cared for her chameleons, she named and treated them as individuals. But it was a revelation to read how, when Claude Perrault dissected the bodies of the ex-denizens of the Royal Menagerie, he insisted on the specificity of the individual animal in question. Or when Charles Le Brun, first painter of the king, described the aesthetic rules of expressions, he clearly sought to individuate animals of the same “species” for their specific characters. At the same time, of course, animals were considered, if not exactly as species in the post-Darwinian sense, than at least as sharing common identities, such that people wrote of “the” bear, “the” dromedary, or “the” crown-crested crane. More importantly, under the shadow of Descartes, I track the emergence of “the” animal – an unruly and capacious category of nonhuman beings – at this very moment, when it appears in comparison and opposition to “the” human.

What about the difference between the uses of animals as symbols versus their actual lives?

That’s actually a complex question that goes to the heart of the argument. All domesticated animals, today as in the past, live their lives in cultural frameworks. I don’t mean simply that different societies think differently about their animals, a lesson anthropology has taught us, but that animals actually behave (and possibly themselves think) differently in different cultures as a result of the ways in which they are treated. So there is no “actual life” of animals apart from their life in a culture, which is of course a symbolic system. At the same time, I’m arguing that the symbolic work of animals was different before and after 1668, while using the multiple events and cultural products of that year to account for a radically new view of animals, framed by both the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV, and the diffusion of Cartesian thinking. I don’t argue that animals were stripped of their symbolic values in the face of Classical naturalism (which is the claim made at the time by, for example, Claude Perrault), but that the cultural framework used after 1668 to understand animals insisted on their life-like, naturalistic appearance, even as they did symbolic work of royal glorification in a range of media – print, painting, tapestry, sculpture, experimental science, medical cures, all in or around 1668.

How does the subject matter of this book relate to your previous work on borders and the development of the state?

I’ve always been interested in the history of the role of the state in the construction of French national identity, like many other early modern historians. Perhaps my signature as an historian of French identity has been to consistently begin at the margins – and the Other – to look toward the center. This approach is explicit in my first book, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (1989), as well as my early work in environmental history and peasant rebellions (Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France [1994]). The same trope of collective self and other is built into my work on immigration (And What if We Made Foreigners Pay? Louis XIV, Immigrants, and a Few Others [1999]) and on naturalization (Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After [2004]), My own animal turn makes sense in this context: I’m basically interested in a moment (1668) in the formation of French cultural identity that was shaped by animal “others” in an unexpected and largely understudied way. I should add, however, that this book is different from all my others, in that I had more fun hunting down the animals of ’68, that I was able to pursue research in fields new to me (science studies, visual culture, garden history, among others), and that I was privileged to publish with Zone Books, among an illustrious stable of authors, in a beautifully produced book.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.