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Surprising Transformations of Unchaining Beastiality

Surprising Transformations of Unchaining Beastiality
© Photograph by Rebeca Saray

In 1936, György Lukács wrote of the “degradation and crippling under capitalism [that] is far more tragic, its bestiality viler, more ferocious and terrible than that pictured even in the best of these novels”. He was referring to modern realism, which, in his view, had “lost its capacity to depict the dynamics of life, and thus its representation of capitalist reality is inadequate, diluted and constrained”. The present study grapples with this vile bestiality, but examines its earlier manifestation in British texts between 1885 and 1900 — the period that saw the development of realism and its sister movement, naturalism, and which is most commonly described in literary and cultural studies as an “age of transition”.

During these years, “[t]he Late Victorians themselves were intensely conscious of their transitory state”. The literary historian Peter Keating outlines, for example, the transformation of education into a system of social mobility; cultural transformation; the transformation, “even perhaps the death”, of the Victorian family; and a “revolutionary transformation in every aspect of communications”. To these, we might add urbanisation, whose “whetted fangs of change/daily devour the old demesne”. John Davidson’s lines growl with the sense of class menace.

The changes that many experienced in late nineteenth-century Britain are symbolised by the obsessive display of figures of indeterminate or altered shape: beasts with human characteristics; humans who are, or who become, beastly; creatures of dubious or shifting classification. Some of these have been the subject of considerable critical attention, but rather than timeless mythical or psychological examples of metamorphosis — for which they are often taken — these physical alterations might be viewed more productively as reflections of changes to the social body.

In “one of the most important documents of the fin de siècle”, Max Simon Nordau considers the notion behind the latter term: “It means a practical emancipation from traditional discipline, which theoretically is still in force. To the voluptuary this means unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man; to the withered heart of the egoist, disdain of all consideration for his fellow-men, the trampling under foot of all barriers which enclose brutal greed of lucre and lust of pleasure […] And to all, it means the end of an established order, which for thousands of years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity, and in every art matured something of beauty.”

Max Simon Nordau’s condemnation of the fin de siècle connects avarice, animality, and disorder — a linkage that the present study explores.

If the following pages risk assuming the character of a safari, the metaphors of animality and movement that they track provide an important vantage point from which to survey the literary and social terrain of the 1880s and 1890s. When, for instance, a modern editor of Walter Besant’s ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men’ (1882) summarises that novel as one “about transformation: crossings of class boundaries, metamorphoses of estate”, she is describing a situation that also applies to its context. Walter Besant himself turns to animal imagery to make his point, writing: “There is one consolation always open, thank Heaven, for the meanest among us poor worms of the earth. We are gifted with imaginations; we can make the impossible an actual fact, and can with the eye of the mind make the unreal stand before us in the flesh. Therefore when we are downtrodden, we may proceed […] to take revenge upon our enemy in imagination.”

The immediate referent here is the vengeance pictured by the grasping, cheating Mr Bunker upon the heiress, Angela Messenger, who, in visiting her property and its East End environs incognito as Miss Kennedy, has humiliated him. In a broader sense, however, the passage glances at something else that is happening: Walter Besant uses his imagination to bust Bunker. The author’s remarks quoted above suggest the transformative power of imaginative literature, with both negative and positive effects. While revenge is not always a motive, the metaphors employed by writers of the late nineteenth-century attempt to give shape to a society in which so much had become uncertain. The threats to social definition result not only in imaginative projections of beastly confusion but are reflected, too, in narratives of mixed generic identity.

“Many Victorians were fascinated by transformation and the limits of metamorphosis”, Gillian Patricia Kempster Beer observes. The late Victorians’ fascination with this process and its boundaries was distinctive: it followed a long tradition of interest and curiosity, but was of its own order, driven by circumstances unique to the last fifteen years or so of the nineteenth-century. Each age and culture has its own monsters and transformations, often modifying those of its ancestors or neighbours. The Renaissance’s rediscovery of the classics, and their prominence in nineteenth-century élite education, tied modern European culture to the times of Publius Ovidius Naso, who proclaimed at the beginning of his Metamorphoses: “My intention is to tell of bodies changed/To different forms.” In a study of shape-shifting, Marina Sarah Warner recognises both the continuities and changes between the centuries. She detects in Publius Ovidius Naso the fact that “metamorphosis often breaks out in moments of crisis”; that, more generally, tales of metamorphosis often occur “in spaces (temporal, geographical, and mental) that [are] crossroads, cross-cultural zones, points of interchange on the intricate connective tissue of communications between cultures”; and that “it is characteristic of metamorphic writing to appear in transitional places and at the confluences of traditions and civilizations”.

It is at such a moment of “clash and conflict between one intellectual hegemony and another” that the texts of the 1880s and 1890s examined here are situated. Wim Neetens has described how, in the 1880s, “an already precarious and internally eroded ideological dominant found itself faced with the social unrest in which the working class and a number of progressive, middle-class intellectuals began to produce their own, decentralising and potentially counter-hegemonic discourses”. Through its increased literary and scientific interest in the working class, the British bourgeoisie attempted to reassert its dominance and hegemony. “Under these ideological and cultural pressures, naturalism was foregrounded in English literature as the artistic practice which carried the literature of working-class life to an extreme of colonial self-confidence.” One might also refer to the significance of “racial” encounter at this time of increased immigration into London and of heightened anxiety towards the figure of the “mulatto”. Metamorphoses may be connected across the centuries, but the nature of the crises and contacts differs from case to case and from place to place. In Marina Sarah Warner’s words, “context changes meanings”.

Marina Sarah Warner extends the idea of metamorphosis by claiming that through its communication of “principles and ideas”, it “transformed their receivers and readers”. It does this partly because “[t]ransformations bring about a surprise […] The breaking of rules of natural law and verisimilitude creates the fictional world with its own laws […] Moreover, some kinds of metamorphosis play a crucial part in anagnorisis, or recognition, the reversal fundamental to narrative form, and so govern narrative satisfaction.”

Such a process can be seen to operate in the texts that form the subject of Beastly Journeys. Since the social and cultural changes that were happening at the time are reflected symbolically in the alteration of shape that humans and (other) animals undergo, the shock of physical disruption may, if we pursue Marina Sarah Warner’s argument, be said to force recognition of the new social juxtapositions. In fact, while this might have been the case for some contemporary readers, who cannot fail to have seen the economic basis of the literary transformations, the recognition that Marina Sarah Warner describes seems largely to have been overlooked or misapprehended by subsequent readers. The further changes that these late nineteenth-century tales of transformation have undergone in film, stage, and prose adaptations have diluted their radical force. The social and economic anxieties of the original texts have generally vanished. Dracula, Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, the Martians and the Morlocks are not what they once were. Beastly Journeys is, in part, a journey backwards to (re)discover their former identities and situations.

The last couple of decades of the nineteenth-century seem to have housed an especially remarkable menagerie. Apes (white, as well as black), wolves, bats, beetles, hyenas, alien beings, and countless others swing, prowl, fly, creep, crawl, and slither along. Many are still gawped at uneasily. These are the years of the Beast-People, the Ripper, the “Elephant Man”, and others. There were overtly political beasts, too: “Some of the political implications of [Friedrich Wilhelm] Nietzsche’s views were taken up by Shaw and Wells; references to the Übermensch, “Superman”, or “blond beast” occur with some frequency from the mid-1890s; and there were real enthusiasts, like John Davidson.”

They are remarkable both in their number and in their transmutation from or into other forms. One can say of them, as one critic has of metamorphosis generally and its literary representations in particular, that “it is obvious […] metamorphosis has something to do with the search for identity, or in some cases its antithesis, the refusal to develop”. The condition of the creatures rounded up in this book is symptomatic of the society that has spawned them. For an understanding of them, we must add to the six broad headings of metamorphosis that Irving Massey proposes — scientific, philosophical, anthropological (including lycanthropy and vampirism), religious, psychological, and aesthetic — a seventh: economic. It is the economic and social changes of the late nineteenth-century that drive the shape-shifting of these years and the science of Darwinism that frames it.

Three aspects to these beasts underlie the present study. First, many of these creatures are avatars of humans, their transformation from their original condition due to the deforming effects of capital. And yet, second, the socio-economic environment that has so shaped these ghastly apparitions has disappeared from most retellings and readings of the original narratives. Third, the motif of travel forms an important part of the texts, effecting the alteration itself or leading to the discovery of that transformation. Both the mode of travel and the discoveries that are made throw light on the preoccupations of the period.

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