…and a little disturbing about taxidermically preserved critters.
I can appreciate the art that goes into creating a good, um, specimen (I suppose that’s what I’ll call it now). Considerable care goes into using the hide and frame of a dead animal to create something both permanently frozen and yet lifelike. I know that there are artists who create fanciful specimens, fantastic items arranged into elaborate sculptures, and I find some of them fascinating and genuinely beautiful. I know that sometimes these stuffed trophies can take on a sort of terrible life of their own (like the marlin on my father’s wall, which is a constant source of genuine terror to one of my young nieces) that has nothing to do with what they were like alive. I understand the scientific and historical value these specimens can have — I’ve seen amazing collections (like the one in Harvard’s Museum of Natural History) that document not only the forms of the creatures themselves, but also the time in which they were discovered, captured, killed, stuffed, and displayed. Their forms say as much about the people who made them as they do about the animals they once were.
There is something very sad about every specimen I see, no matter how well made or fancifully designed. I find that I’ve developed a kind of sympathetic horror (if that makes any sense) about specimens I encounter. Their empty glass eyes remind me of what a living eye looks like, and their stillness always suggests violently arrested movement, no matter how they’re posed. When they get old, the threadbare look of their ruined hides is ever so much worse, somehow, than the natural aging look of skin and hair, because there is nothing living beneath it. Arrested rot stands before me, helpless and terrible.
What makes it horrifying to me is not the rot, or even that it has been (if only temporarily) delayed. It’s the whiff of artifice, the cold use of a living being taken out of its usual place and process, that disturbs me most. I wish their hearts could beat, and that they could breathe (for they always seem to me to be holding their breath, forever). In death, they are too close to animation without being genuinely animate, and it’s just…wrong, somehow.
[both photos are mine — see more here.]