Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hyena Trouble

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hyena Trouble

Article excerpt

AN IMPORTANT CRITICAL FOCUS FOR FEMINIST ROMANTIC STUDIES IS THE identification of "woman" with "nature": woman as nature and nature as woman. In this account, woman figures body rather than mind, an agent of physical rather than cultural production. Man is defined against nature. In both cases, "nature" means "animal." If, as Cary Wolfe reminds us, the animal is "always lying in wait at the very heart of the constitutive disavowals and self-constructing narratives" that define "the human" (6), gender sharpens the definitional project: animal distinguishes men from women; and for women, "proper ladies" from "women writers." (1)

"Animal" had more work to do than this in the nineteenth century. As Harriet Ritvo argues in The Animal Estate, Britons asserted their superiority by characterizing the other (the colonial) as animal. In collecting, shooting, caging, or taming a "wild" or "dangerous" animal, the British were performing imperialist power, masculinity, and technological superiority all at once. No surprise that big-game hunting became a collective social ritual and point of national pride. (2) Meanwhile back at home, a domestic culture of animals was developing: the establishment of the RSPCA and other humane societies, the breeding of high-class domestic pets, and the creation of a literature of domesticated speaking animals (Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame). Anne Mellor's work has helped us read a counter-imperial domestic ideology, formed by values of maternal care and sympathy. (3) Yet contrasts can be troubled by continuities. At home, Victorian women were dressing, like never before, in the fur and feathers of animals from across the globe. And just below the surfaces--of domestic fashion, of humane homes, of imperialist pride--are worries about the monstrous animal within everyone, within every culture. (4)

No scarier monster than the real animal named in the title of my essay: Hyena. What is Hyena trouble? Unlike the quasi-mythic Tyger, in whose "fearful symmetry" William Blake surmised a sublime Creator, the zoologically real hyena is an unsublime, queer animal that disturbs and unsettles fundamental categories of nature, politics, gender, and sexuality. With its huge head, massive bone-crushing jaws and teeth, and cold glaring eyes, with its bristling mane and front legs that seem too long for its hind legs, the hyena is frightening and ungainly, as if it were composed of mismatched parts, a kind of animal from Frankenstein's laboratory. More troubling than this ugliness is a definitional queasiness. Though a hyena looks canine, it figures a mockery, from its behavior and appearance, to the number of its toes to its strange mane and civet-like scent glands. The ancient Greeks called it a "huaina," from hus, or swine. In 1614, Sir Walter Raleigh described hyenas as "beasts of mix'd natures" and denied them a place on the Ark. It was "not needful to preserve them," he writes, guessing that "they might be generated again" after the Flood, when foxes once again mated with wolves. (5) This mixed breed persisted in Enlightenment naturalism. M. J. Brisson thought a hyena a wolf, while Linnaeus classified it as a dog with erect hair on the neck. To William Buckland it fell into "an intermediate class between the cat and dog tribes." (6)

Foreign to the British, linked to the orient and the tropics, the hyena courted orientalist stereotypes: cringing and cowardly and yet fierce, intractable, sensual, and cruel. "Scorning all the taming arts of man, / The keen hyena, fellest of the fell," is how Thomson's Summer gives the lesson. (7) A creature of the night, haunting desolate solitudes, this nocturnal scavenger, a notorious grave-robber, was criminal, degenerate, and corrupt, the most fallen of the fallen. In one of the "History of Romulus" tapestries at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, the hyena has this motto: "IMPIA VIVIS AC DIRA SEPULTIS" ["Without pity for the living and dreadful to the dead"]. …

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