Very Still Life: A Review of Simon Carnell’s Hare

Simon Carnell, Hare. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010.

Rabbit Hole
Types of hare, with squirrel, by Georg Hoefnagel, from Terra: Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia, c.1575-80. Reproduced in Carnell, p.6

Reaktion Books has produced nearly fifty volumes on the cultural history of animals, that is, books that explore the meanings humans have given to animals over time. Each volume treats a single animal species and includes its key biological features; its depiction in natural history; its symbolism in myth, literature, and the visual arts; its role in contemporary industrial and scientific culture. The books are richly illustrated and refer  to all of the major and many of the minor sources of human expression about the animal. Oddly, the rabbit is omitted from the series, although Hare came out last year. Like each book in the collection, Hare is impressively executed. Like the others, it too takes the reader on a tour of the human psyche, as it encounters an animal.

Chapter One, “Lagographia .Curiosa: The Natural and Unnatural History of the Hare,” surveys hares in natural history. As Carnell points out, many of the attributes assigned to the hare were mistakes based on real insights. The hare was said to sleep with its body while watching with its eyes; to be dim sighted because of its swiftness; to be able to change sex; to “retrocopulate,” that is to mate by having the male and female face in opposite directions. Many believed in the existence of horned hares and in “leporines,” a hare-rabbit cross. Some elaborated on the antipathy between hares and rabbits, claiming that the hare was naturally scornful of the bourgeois conformism of the rabbit. Peter Kropotkin wrote in 1902 that hares were “passionate, eminently individualist” while rabbits were “placid, quiet and submissive” (cited in Carnell, 18). The famous eighteenth century naturalist Comte de Buffon maintained that hares steered with their ears. Many early naturalists believed that the hare was extremely melancholy; that it never drank but only sipped dew; that a person could tell a hare’s age by counting the clefts in its dung; that hares anointed their bodies with their own urine as protection from rain; that unborn leverets (infant hares) could become pregnant.

Carnell goes on to recount facts that are more reliable than those in early natural history. Hares belong to one of the smallest orders of the animal kingdom, Lagomorpha, which includes only hares, rabbits and pikas. Members of this order have a pair of peg teeth behind the front teeth and an elongated skull with gaps in the cranial bone. Different species have their own specialities: arctic hares do not touch the ground with their front legs while running flat out; the American jackrabbit leaps between 18 and 22 feet; the brown hare (only) is capable of superfetation, that is, conceiving while  pregnant. This chapter then modulates from engaging detail to graphic references to the uses of the hare in medicine, food, and entertainment.

Chapter Two, “Mythic Hare,” focuses on the symbolic hare in more extended representations. Its scope is broad, although wonderful detail clarifies familiar stories. One example is the account from India of the hare that sacrificed itself to feed the Buddha and was rewarded by being placed on the moon. In fact, this hare was one of the Buddha’s incarnations. When preaching to other animals in this form, it sees the god Sakka. Each of the animals offers food to Sakka, but only the hare does so in an appropriate way. That is, it follows the law that no life should be destroyed and offers to sacrifice only itself by leaping into the fire. It shakes itself three times to free any creatures living in its fur. As a reward, Sakka prevents the sacrifice and paints the hare’s image on the moon.

I was relieved that Chapter Three, “Hunted Hare,” focused on  bizarre human attitudes toward hare hunting rather than on the grim details of the hunt itself. However, readers should be warned that the chapter ends with disturbing photographs of hare coursing. Throughout the chapter, Carnell shows that the hare was hunted because of the very qualities people admired: speed, cunning, and endurance, exemplified by its maze-like trails, its sharp, right-angle turns, and its ability to jump directly up and to the side, in order to split the scent trail. Apparently, these traits made hare hunting exhilarating even as it made catching the hare disturbing. After recommending hare hunting, the Roman philosopher Arrian writes, “to see her caught is neither a pleasant sight nor exciting, but upsetting rather” (cited by Carnell, 92).

Carnell goes on to show that the history of hare hunting is inseparable from human class warfare. The aristocracy insisted that no one without landed wealth was to hunt the hare nor any other animal species. The lower and middle classes began to insist on their right to hunt, and thus the hunting of animals became synonymous with agitation for social democracy! On the other hand, opponents of hare hunting developed their own discourses, arguing that hares were harmless and intelligent, that hunting did not express nobility but rather a depraved character. They maintained that the hare’s death scream ought to generate empathy, and they scorned the pro-hunting claim that the death scream was an automatic vocalization. In sum, the hunted hare was a figure triggering extreme conflict between empathy and lust for exploitation, often within the same person.

Of all the chapters, Chapter Four, “Painted and Plastic Hare,” was the most disturbing. This was because so much of it was about the way artists have used hare death and suffering to represent beauty and vulnerability. The chapter begins in a very positive way with a fascinating account of the most famous hare in history, Albrecht Dürer’s “Young Hare.” This hare was probably tame, even a pet, writes Carnell. Dürer painted a reflection of his studio window in the hare’s eye, a detail that he included in his own self portrait. Dürer’s young hare is in sharp contrast to the dead hares which for centuries were part of the “still life” tradition.

Carnell explains the reasons behind the piling up of dead animals onto the “still life” canvas. Some paintings propose that the dead hare is a beautiful object of contemplation or an opportunity to show off the painter’s skill. For some it symbolizes mortality: “due to its athletic vitality when living there are perhaps few things deader or ‘stiller,’ so to speak, than a dead hare” (137). Some used the dead hare to publicize a patron’s hunting prowess, to signify his “manliness.” Other artists wanted to expose the violence of turning animals into food objects. After surveying four centuries of “still life,” the chapter ends with riveting and very disturbing material related to contemporary artists, particularly Joseph Beuys. Following that, a short chapter on hares in literature recapitulates many themes discussed earlier.

For the most part, Carnell is an excellent guide through centuries of hare representations. He has an objectivity that serves his purpose well, in that he can offer excellent insights into human thinking. Rarely did I find Carnell’s own attitudes intrusive. The one exception was his enthusiasm over Sue Taylor-Wood’s self portrait, which celebrates her recovery from cancer by displaying a taxidermic hare. Carnell seems to miss the irony of representing “narrow escape” from death by using a killed animal. On the whole, however, Carnell takes the reader through a rich and detailed history of human attitudes, although one might well wish that it had been a different kind of history.

By Julie Smith, PhD

HRJ Vol. 5, No. 7, Winter/Spring 2011