- Barbara M. Benedict (Author)
Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Basil Harley (Editor), Peter Marren (Editor), and Michael A. Salmon (Editor)
The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and their Collectors. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Colin Blakemore (Editor) and Sheila Jennett (Editor)
The Oxford Companion to the Body. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rachel Poliquin
Last year I had the opportunity to speak with the director of ethnographic exhibits from a noted European museum, who had recently put on display almost everything from the museum’s archive of North American Indian artifacts collected by Europeans from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. After discussing the politics behind the exhibit’s conception and creation, the director commented dryly that the only items to remain in the vaults were scalps. I asked why, expecting a historical critique of colonial illusions or a discussion of contemporary relations between First Nations’ peoples and anthropological displays. He answered that the museum aimed to educate and had no interest in satisfying curiosity mongers and gawkers. The idle fascination and curiosity that scalps evoked, it seemed, led school children astray and impeded edification.
And indeed, throughout time curiosity has been berated as the dilettantish dabbling of ridiculous powdered gentlemen or it has been tainted by religious condemnation of impious and vain scrutiny into things beyond human comprehension; curious people have been denounced for their unconcealed ambition, intellectual transgressions, and social affronts. Mythical women and men such as Eve and Pandora, Faust and Frankenstein were bitten by the bug and paid dearly for their unbridled appetites. In Curiosity Barbara M. Benedict explores the contempt for and reinterpreta-tion of curiosity from an intellectual to a visual lust during the Restoration and eighteenth century, stimulated by the rise of empiricism and promoted by the mushrooming circulation of journals, wonder narratives, and advertising. Benedict approaches the virtuosi of the Royal Society, who are typically lauded as the fathers of modern science, from the unique angle of popular satires such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which undermined elite curiosity as fraudulent and depicted investigators as victims of their own monstrous ambition, thereby becoming curiosities themselves devoid of virtue and integrity. Curiosity is not, however, a history of science but an analysis of "literary representations of the way curious people, including scientists, authors, performers, and readers, were engaged in practicing and producing curiosity itself." The very accessibility and democratic appeal of empirical inquiry facilitated early periodicals and advertising gleefully to mimic scientific language and skilfully to display curious novelties such as monsters, wondrous remedies, and parsnips shaped like human hands as commodities. At once the fragmenting, objectifying gaze of empiricism and the profane peeping of scandal rags and popular press, curiosity, Benedict claims, became the mode for manifesting identity in the public arena and the essence of fashionable modernity. Benedict’s sprightly prose, eclectic sources, and keen perspective make Curiosity both a subversive and intriguing study.
If curiosity and erudition were deemed inimical by the eighteenth-century popular press, the two are undeniably entwined in nineteenth-century entomology, lavishly detailed by the captivating The Aurelian Legacy. Self-described as an anatomy of passionate collecting, Aurelian Legacy is as witty and erudite as the lepidopterists themselves and as comprehensive as their collections. Besides brief biographies of 101 butterfly collectors and some species of historical interest, Aurelian Legacy contains chapters on conservation, a history of butterfly collecting in Britain, and weapons of the chase. We meet Albert Brydges Farn (1841-1921), who not only had the finest private collection of British butterflies and moths in the country but was also a legendary shot and billiard player, once outlasting his challenger by playing for twenty-four hours straight. There is the extraordinary Lionel Walter Rothschild, second Baron Rothschild of Tring (1868-1937) > who amassed a marvellous zoo ranging from starfish to gorillas, including two million set butterflies and moths; kangaroos, ostriches, and cassowaries roamed freely across his lands; he rode his Giant Tortoises with the aid of a lettuce dangling from a stick, and drove his zebras in harness through Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. We also meet Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862-1940), perhaps the most travelled British lepidopterist, who trekked through Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and the Far East, the New World and the Antipodes with her faithful Syrian amant and guide, Khalil Neimy, before he succumbed to fever; as a solo traveller, she met a remarkable number of bandits including the Corsican brigand, Jacques Bellacoscia, who entertained her in his hide-out in 1893. Any reader will agree with the lament, in the preface, for the present disdain for collecting and eccentric inquiry. Aurelian Legacy enthusiastically conveys the spirit of amusement, scholarship, and good fellowship pervading butterfly societies, delighting in the lively post-rambling banquets and the perfect amity between curiosity, arduous dedication, and discovery.
We need not fear that eccentricity is deceased and curiosity permanently divorced from edification when publications like The Oxford Companion to the Body are in circulation, which saucily and in a very un-encyclopaedic manner announces its project "inevitably precluded total uniformity of style and presentation" and "makes no apology" for its alphabetical fragmentation of topics. Rather, the editors hope that "the resulting contiguity of sometimes surprising neighbours on the pages may delight the casual reader as much as the chronic browser." True to its word, The Oxford Companion is a fascinatingly argus-eyed inspection of both physiology and the art of the human body from cultural, mythological, religious, historical, and artistic perspectives. Readers not bent on dry erudition will indeed delight in the latent narratives suggested by such neighbours as Space Travel, Spasticity, and Spectacles, Harelip, Harem, and Hangover, and Vampire, Vanity, and Varicose Veins. The empirically minded will learn that an infant’s brain increases in weight from about 750g to noog during the first year of its life or that heat speeds the onset of rigor mortis; those with a cultural interest will discover the aristocratic history of gout, that the Regency’s vogue of high collars was due to the Prince’s embarrassment with his unsightly goitre, and that the mother of Henry IV of France listened to sweet music during her pregnancy to mould her baby’s temperament. There are also the downright snigger-worth entries such as Farting, which entertains readers with the vital knowledge that "vegetarians fart more than meat-eaters, but their farts are less smelly." The vast majority of the more than 350 historians, psychologists, life scientists, anthropologists, writers, and theologians are from Britain, which shapes this massive text in two distinct ways. As Britain is the centre of medical history, there is a strong historical emphasis in the entries. Galen and Hippocrates are consulted on diverse subjects such as Baldness, Blood Circulation, and Hormone Replacement Therapy; Shakespeare, Plato, Flaubert, and the Marquis de Sade are just a few of the authors, philosophers, and playwrights who fraternize with cutting-edge science. And, not surprisingly, the concentration of British contributors has resulted in certain Anglocentricisms: Funeral Practices is divided into "British Customs" and "Cultural Variation," and Diet focuses on western practices as do such entries as Disease, Kiss, Healthy Foods and Heart, Broken. Nevertheless, insightful anthropological research is well represented; Islamic Medicine and Hinduism and the Body merit separate entries, as do many other cultural variations of dress, religion, medicine, and domestic rituals. The multidimensionality of this tome is an editorial feat, and the various handling of entries is as interesting as the information conveyed. Perhaps the most eccentric angle is exhibited by the 150 illustrations and twenty full-page colour photographs, which, with the exception of the purely diagrammatical, appear to be selected with the sole aim of piquing curiosity or visually delighting readers. Lungs is whimsically illustrated by a sixteenth-century woodcut as is Cerebral Ventricles; the index concludes with an eerie image of Apollo space suits in storage that would have made Edward Kienholz proud; the astonishing article on the Hottentot Apron (if you don’t know what it is, I’m too squeamish to tell) is enriched with two admirably lurid pencil sketches. And who are those pensive middle eastern men depicting Photography, blandly captioned as "Group of three men" ? Fortunately, the illuminating cultural history found in Scalping is not supplemented by an image: I wouldn’t want to be caught gawking with idle curiosity.
- No Free Lunches by Nicholas Travers
Books reviewed: Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction by Sarah Sceats
- Writing Diasporic Lives by Wendy Roy
Books reviewed: Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation by Sandra Pouchet Paquet and Portugese Women in Toronto: Gender, Immigration, and Nationalism by Wenona Giles
- Baroness Elsa by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Books reviewed: Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography by Rosmarin Heidenreich
- Come Fly with Them by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany by Graeme Gibson and Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World by Candace Savage
- Tricultural Landscape by Gundula Wilke
Books reviewed: The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing by Joseph Pivato, Pillars of Lace: The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Women Writers by marisa De Franceschi, and Duologue: On Culture and Identity by Antonio D’Alfonso and Pasquale Verdicchio
MLA: Poliquin, Rachel. Curious Knowledge. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 115 - 118)
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