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1668:The Year of the Animal in France reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement
Wild Things

In a new review in The Times Literary Supplement, Harriet Ritvo discusses Peter Sahlins’s 1668: The Year of the Animal in France. Click here to learn more about the book. Click the button to the left to read the full review. An excerpt appears below:

“If ‘the Year of the Animal’ was inspired by the Versailles menagerie, it also embraced such loosely connected endeavours as the physiognomical explorations of the painter Charles Le Brun. His juxtapositions of human and non- human faces tended to feature domesticated animals and other mammals, rather than birds, and, in contrast to the allegory embodied in the menagerie, his images strongly suggested that cross-specific resemblances reflected badly on people. Sahlins understands Le Brun’s work as illustrating the trend away from theriophilia, and towards a more realistic or naturalistic view of animals. This trend was also evident in discussions of the ‘mechanism’ of René Descartes, which, in the decades since his death in 1650, had sparked widespread interest. Sahlins uses two fascinating examples to illustrate how complex and often inconsistent were contemporary responses and understandings. Because blood was believed to possess curative properties, xenotransfusion (transfusion between individuals of different species, mostly but not exclusively non-human) was a compelling subject for research, although (unsurprisingly from our perspective) experimental attempts proved disappointing at best. (Paris was not the only location for such experiments; for example, the Royal Society in London witnessed a similar procedure in 1667.) These experiments provoked controversy and criticism, and not only because of their potentially catastrophic outcome; also at stake was the relationship between humans and other animals, and especially the question of whether, or to what extent, their possession of a soul made people distinctive. An alternative, and politically less fraught, arena for such discussion was provided by three chameleons whose brief residences in Paris offered variously interpreted evidence of their enjoyment or lack of an emotional life.”