In the work of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, dead animals act out scenes that only humans can perform or even appreciate. One of Potter’s best-known displays shows a funeral complete with coffin and bunting. A reenactment of the tale of Cock Robin, the scene features stuffed birds that cry glass tears. Since 1861 when Potter completed “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin,” these animals have mourned a slain bird that died at the “hands” of a sparrow. In his analysis of Potter’s work, New York University lecturer Conor Creaney looks at the scene with self-professed earnestness. He reads Potter’s work “as texts that do a sincere (and, yes, highly idiosyncratic) job of rendering the human world.” This analysis appears in an essay, “Paralytic Animation: The Anthropomorphic Taxidermy of Walter Potter,” that has all the wonderfully numerous and essential implications of an allegorical story rendered in miniature.
Creaney needs to employ scale in a dramatic way to achieve his aims. He sets out not only to read Potter’s work closely but to link it to Charles Dickens’s treatment of the border between life and death in Our Mutual Friend. Creaney primarily forges this link through his examination of the taxidermist in Dickens’s novel, Mr. Venus. The specimens in Venus’s shop lend the essay’s title the striking words “Paralytic Animation.” As Creaney explains: “The phrase that Dickens’s narrator uses in Our Mutual Friend to describe the preserved animals in Mr. Venus’s shop window captures their predicament: they are ‘paralytically animated.’” The description of the animals’ fate as a “predicament” – a word that suggests a sensibly known hardship – reflects another way in which Creaney links Potter’s work to Our Mutual Friend. Throughout the essay, dead animals seem like kindred spirits to sentient humans, albeit fictional ones. Many of the characters in Our Mutual Friend, says Creaney, dwell in the same ontological space as the dead stars of anthropomorphic taxidermy. Looking at figures in Our Mutual Friend that venture near the border between life and death, Creaney asserts that these characters are “animated” but not fully alive, “paralytic” but denied the deep stillness of death.
The argument about these characters’ “predicament” is relatively short but highly compelling. In a page-long paragraph, Creaney speaks of the novel’s depiction of the almost-dead and not-dead-enough. From Betty Higden who suffers “repeated bouts of swooning ‘deadness’” to Rogue Riderhood who is brought back to life against his will, Creaney cites many examples of characters whose animation seems less spontaneous and lively than forced and lifelike.
“Like” and “seems” play small yet pivotal roles in Creaney’s essay, as do “appeared” and “as if.” In a wonderfully layered passage, Creaney examines the frequent use of “as if” in Our Mutual Friend, a phrase that appears 392 times. “When we include the phrase’s cognates, such as ‘seemed’ and ‘appeared,’” writes Creaney, “we see these markers of provisionality being inserted on almost every page of the novel.” These “markers of provisionality” create a profound uncertainty that, Creaney argues, complicates the character of Venus. Unlike the narrator, Venus does not hesitate to ascribe meaning to his “characters.” Manipulating his raw materials to create stories, he makes “brute inscription[s]” of “new life and meaning on the bodies and body parts on which he works.” Venus’s bold decisions about meaning are “playfully problematized” against the backdrop of the narrator’s provisional statements.
Creaney never goes into detail about how Venus’s work is thusly “problematized.” His treatment of the novel’s complex narration and Venus’s assertions of story onto flesh is brief. Where the essay lingers is in its analyses of the glass boxes that Potter filled with the animated dead. Creaney spends much of the essay looking at how Potter’s taxidermy – popular in its time – reflected Victorian beliefs on a variety of topics, from evolution to marriage. The first half of the essay, which focuses almost exclusively on Potter’s work, centers on the 1890 tableau, “The Kittens’ Wedding.” The feline characters wear finely stitched outfits and stand on their hind legs, upending evolutionary hierarchies. The two kittens at the altar stare into each other’s glass eyes. “Bride and groom are helplessly bound to stand and gaze upon each other for eternity, with no prospect of aging and decaying.” Intriguingly, Creaney suggests that this “eternity” may say something about how the realist Victorian novel “tends to expire at the moment of marriage, leaving the characters forever frozen in a limbo of no-longer-narratedness.”
Creaney, who prefaces this speculation with a “perhaps,” often engages in the sort of spirited uncertainty that makes Our Mutual Friend an unusual, proto-modernist novel. As happens with Venus in Dickens’s work, the taxidermic images in Creaney’s essay pin down his speculations in startlingly certain moments of connection. In the latter half of “Paralytic Animation,” Creaney examines how the narrator in Our Mutual Friend associates Venus with the story of Cock Robin. In Venus’s shop, a bird with a punctured breast is described “[a]s if it were Cock Robin, the hero of the ballad, and Mr. Venus were the sparrow with his bow and arrow.” Through this piercing association between real taxidermic animals and Dickens’s fictional one, Creaney achieves his aims of relating Potter and Dickens in a shocking yet appropriate image: the dead, pierced flesh of a bird.
Throughout “Paralytic Animation,” such memorable moments arise in surprising places. Like Venus’s overcrowded shop, the essay holds fascinating speculations in the spaces created by its analysis of tableaux and text. Intriguing biographical details about Dickens, for instance, are tucked down in the endnotes. There, Creaney speculates about the novelist’s knowledge of Potter’s work (Dickens “may have been aware of it”), the novelist’s own experience of being displayed behind a window as a child (his quickness as a factory worker was on exhibit), and the possible significance of the brass toads with swords that Dickens kept on his desk (they resemble some dueling toads in Venus’s shop). Such tucked-away biographical details satisfy the curiosity about Dickens’s own relationship to taxidermic displays. The photos of Potter’s handiwork that appear throughout the essay, meanwhile, create their own glass-eyed curiosity about this distinctly Victorian phenomenon of making animals act out human tales.</p>
CONOR CREANEY. “Paralytic Animation: The Anthropomorphic Taxidermy of Walter Potter.” Victorian Studies 53.1 (Autumn 2010): 7-35, 191. Print.