Monday 1 October 2018

Picture Post #38 What Happened Next to the White Rabbit

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

A shop window in Paris, captured en passant by Tessa den Uyl
This cozy scene reminiscient of Lewis Carroll's imaginary ‘wonderland’, is in fact, something rather more grim.

No surprise would fall upon us to discover a boar’s head hanging on the wall in a hunter’s lodge. But most often today, to encounter embalmed animals in non-rural houses reminds of gestures of excess that echo as non-virtuous.

This shop window in the centre of Paris offers a sitting room full of real dead animals. Yet perhaps it is not the embalmed animals that particularly draw the attention here, but rather the way that they are displayed with more or less anthropomorphic features.

The White Rabbit, in Lewis Carroll's famous story, Alice in Wonderland, occupies a particular role: he appears at the very beginning of the book, in chapter one, wearing a waistcoat, carrying a pocket watch, and in a great hurry muttering ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ And Alice encounters him again at a stressful moment in the adventure when she finds herself trapped in his house after growing too large.

Most emblematic of all though, the Rabbit  reappears as a servant of the King and Queen of Hearts in the closing chapters of the book, reading out bizarre verses as ‘evidence' against Alice. In this scene, the stuffed white rabbit, too, seems to have a prosecutorial air, rather as though the animal is a judge surrounded by courtroom flunkeys.

In Alice’s case, the White Rabbit’s case for the prosecution is so convincing that the Queen of Hearts immediately announces ‘Off with her head!’ at which point, mercifully, Alice wakes up. In this real-life shop, too, a similar return to earth is marked by a neatly framed message held by the only fake animal in the shop.  It notifies the observer that all the animals have died naturally in zoos or zoological parks. Potential clients can presumably put their consciences to ease.

Aristotle mentioned that art is a representation of life, of character, of emotion and actions, and in contemporary art, animals in formaldehyde are exhibited in famous museums for world-scaring prizes. So why not admire a similar thing by looking into this shop window? Yet there is a repulsion.

Is it a reduction of the animal - or is it rather the excess - the building up of animals into fine decor for homes? Or is the display less commercial than in itself an artistic exploration? Or is it more a philosophical challenge, something to do with Aristotle’s notion that we seek to discover the universal hidden in a world of the everyday and particular?


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It is interesting how perceptions change. This shop window in Paris is indeed anachronistic. Interesting, too, the question what it is that has changed perceptions. What is the 'repulsion' today? An increased awareness of cruelty to animals? An augmented fear of death? An increased desire for the preservation of species? ...

Keith said...

Dead animals as decorative tchotchke, to ‘thoughtfully’ place around the house on nightstands and coffee tables: this scene strikes me as taxidermy gone rogue. A throwback to an earlier era of indulgence and entitlement — before the advent of environmentalism. Maybe there’s an antiquated — yet for some, oddly nostalgic — allure here, in the animals’ presumed, but misplaced, exoticism as designer pieces.

docmartincohen said...

The French have this notion of their own 'exceptionalism' so that even in if the whole world decidsd to reject stuffed animals as repulsive and grotesque, they will continue to consider it very chic.

But just taking the image as it is, and not thinking too much about what lies behind it, for me anyway, there is a kind of imaginative power to the scene. Yet why do we give animals these roles? Are they somehow archetypes?

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Gentlemen,

Someone commented that: Part of the real repulsion comes from our awareness that there is a very human idea of cuteness here that the animals can only serve because they are dead. The cuteness pretends that they are alive and willing; but we know that they are not.
Someone else commented that: Nature is perceived only when it becomes a spectacle. And one might add this notion made by Guy Debord that: The origin of the spectacle is the loss of the unity of the world.
Or perhaps these animals reflect an anthropocentric impulsion that looks for preservation at its own resemblance?

Yes, why do we give animals these roles, good question! Could you expand on the archetypes, Martin?

docmartincohen said...

Ah, I was only half-remembering this concept! But checking up, yes it seems to fit. In Jungian psychology, it is said, the archetypes represent universal patterns and images that are part of the collective unconscious.

Jung explains more in his book 'The Structure of the Psyche'.
"This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form, they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness, not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses but to translate into visible reality the world within us".

It seems that Jung believed that the human mind retains fundamental, unconscious, biological aspects of our ancestors. These 'primordial images' serve as a basic foundation of how to be human.

"Archaic and mythic characters" make up archetypes that symbolise basic human motives, values, and personalities.

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