Dissecting Taxidermy and the Body Horrors During Victorian Gothic Tales

Subarna Mondal

Subarna Mondal

From the string of “body horrors” during the early Gothic narratives of the eighteenth-century down to the “abhumans” of late Victorian Gothic tales human anatomy has been a site of innumerable fantastic dissections and conjoining.

Throughout human history, the body has been considered as highly volatile, one which has to be contained within a strict vigil to keep it from spilling over its boundary.

The cultural construction of an indoctrinated body follows a predictable process: the destruction of a natural body, its recreation into a tamed version, and its constant patient preservation. These three processes are the conduits through which the body in the Gothic genre, in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) and in the art of taxidermy will be explored.

Taxidermy shares one of the central concerns of the Gothic: its preoccupation with the past, and an attempt at preserving the past through corporeality. It may even be said that a common thread between the Gothic texts and the art of taxidermy is the practice of grotesque preservation. The very art of taxidermy encapsulates the contradictory notions of being and not-being.

The attempts of mimicking life, of arresting movements, and of preserving a body that is both present and absent may serve as a metaphoric representation of what the Gothic projects, that is, the ever-present anxiety with the body thwarting all attempts at fixity.

Since the art of taxidermy is based primarily on corporeality, its conjunction with the Body Gothic needs to be explored first.
Contemporary theoreticians like Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Steven Bruhms, Kelly Hurley and Xavier Aldana Reyes consider the Gothic as “inherently somatic and corporeal” (Reyes, Introduction). Gothic literature is usually dependent on the reader’s shared experience of bodily sensations for its meaning.

Taxidermy, like the Body Gothic, not only relies on, but is absolutely dependent on affective viscera. The affective and morbid features that taxidermy, as a discipline, endorses and for which it is at times snubbed, are also the features of the Gothic that are looked down upon.

Reyes (2014) points out that within the canon of academic writing on Gothicism even if “[…] this visceral quality has been acknowledged at all, it is separated from the more subtle workings of the suggestive or the sublime and seen as a less refined and accomplished artistic form” (Reyes, Introduction).

The task of the Body Gothic is to place the materiality of the body squarely within the Gothic literary canon. Taxidermy may be an effective tool to carry out such a task. In fact, deformity, alterity, liminality, grotesquery, transgression and excess are all common features shared by both taxidermy and the Gothic.

From trophies to exhibits to images of longing, taxidermy has travelled a long way. A taxidermy body-form is so loaded with contradictions and ambivalence that it becomes a fertile space of interpretative strains in whichever setting or medium it appears — a private museum, a diorama, a written text, or a visual art like photography or film.

Taxidermy has been a rich source of study in colonial and gender discourses as it apparently rests on the power relation between the predator and the prey, the dominant and the dominated, and the self and the other.

Haraway (1984–1985) looks upon the enterprise of taxidermy as “the commerce of power and knowledge in white and male supremacist monopoly capitalism” (1984: 21), while Rachel Poliquin in ‘The Breathless Zoo’ (2012) considers how a taxidermy body serves as a signifier of Oriental exoticism; she describes them as “metonymic of entire geographies” (87).

The art of taxidermy apparently highlights the control that the creator has on the creation, but the interpretations of such a creation are extremely fluid. The countless meanings that a single specimen can generate testify to the fact that such creations cannot be simply reduced to the dominant/dominated binary. Herein resides another similarity between taxidermy, Gothic narratives, and films. The creator at times is caught up in the unexpected consequences of his/her own creation.

From anthropomorphic taxidermy to miniatures, from small curiosity shops to gigantic dioramas, taxidermy deals with the skin of dead animals. It is an art that arises from a merging of the antithetical reality of life and death, stillness and motion, and fragmentation and integration that brings forth the discourse of the Gothic

The nineteenth-century witnessed a proliferation of taxidermy creations. Walter Potter’s (1835–1918) anthropomorphic museum of curiosities, Hermann Ploucquet’s (1816–1878) anti-naturalistic tableaus, and Charles Waterton’s (1782–1865) use of taxidermy as a trenchant attack on contemporary politics all flourished during the nineteenth-century as animal re-creations were made to “ape” human actions.

The carcasses of the animals were dressed as humans and were displayed as participating in myths and folklores that belonged to the domain of human narratives.

Significantly, the late nineteenth-century also witnessed a proliferation of Gothic texts that problematized the man/animal binary. By rummaging through the myriad labyrinths of a highly complex physical constitution of the human subject, the authors of the Gothic texts obliterate the reassuring lines between familiar and unfamiliar, past and present, fantasy and nightmare, unity and fragmentation, and progression and regression, giving birth to characters like vampires, werewolves, ape-men and beast people, perching on the precarious strands of fluid forms.

Kelly Hurley in ‘The Gothic Body: Sexuality, materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siècle’ (1996), discusses the proliferation of “abhumans” that populate the British Gothic narratives at the turn of the century: ‘The Hunting of the “Soko”’ (1881), ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886), ‘The Weapons of Mystery’ (1890), ‘The Great God Pan’ (1894), ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ (1896), ‘Dracula’ (1897), ‘The Beetle’ (1897) to name a few.

The soft and yielding carcasses of the animals, like Dr Moreau’s “samples for vivisection” in the horror-cum-science fiction ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ (1896), are used as bodies that are moulded to imitate human actions and behaviours. Taxidermy projects concrete visual exhibitions of orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas mimicking gestures of the humans bringing the fluidity of our own species to the fore.

The animals thus become grotesque representations of the human form, reminding us of Edward Prendick’s unease after his return from the dystopic island of Dr Moreau. After witnessing the transformation of animals into humanimals (who were forced to mimic the humans) in the island, Prendick, after his return home, starts noticing animal gestures and poses in humans:

“I would go out into the streets… and prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me, with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood…. Then I would turn aside… into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow- creatures than dead bodies would be…” (Wells, 2005: 138–139).

This intermingling of dead/alive, and animal/human brings forth the idea of the permeability of the living corporeal form. The irony in both taxidermy and the gothic body is a desperate attempt to achieve wholeness and stability with raw materials (the skin and the body) that are themselves given to fragmentation and permeability.

While cutting, splitting and splicing a body, a taxidermist admits to an anatomy that is fragmented and permeable, while recreating it as its own replicas, he mirrors our traditional construct of a stable and integral body.

In short, taxidermy may be seen as a futile effort to make us forget about our fragile corporeality by creating a body that is whole and integral framed in a permanent repose. But the very presence of such a body brings to the beholder’s mind the image of a protean body. The very presence of a unitary stable physical construct mounted in front of us ironically reminds us of its fluid instability.

This taxidermic hankering after a body that is whole and in permanent repose betrays an angst that brings it closer to the Gothic. When we speak of the body in relation to the Gothic, we tend to focus on the destructive and the disruptive. We speak of mutilation, desecration and annihilation. However, there is one aspect of the Gothic which usually goes unnoticed — the act of preservation.

After all, Gothicism is associated with the past—and what is the past if not a repository of the memories of lost time? Be it an ancestral curse, a ruined mansion, a familial secret, a demented aristocrat, or a decayed body in a closet, the Gothic always preserves. It may be seen as a form of taxidermy: the taxidermy of the spatial, the temporal, the psychological, and the corporeal.

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