In December, I traveled to Paris with my daughter for the global conference on climate change. We’d booked the tickets months in advance, hoping to participate in public rallies in favor of strong limits. Several weeks before our departure, extremists attacked Paris with their AK-47s and suicide bombs. We monitored the news and waited. Eventually, aware of the risks, we agreed to go ahead with the trip. Even if the demonstration was canceled by the police, a least we could show our support by visiting the city we feel an immense fondness for.
In the end, the authorities allowed the rally on the final day of the conference, and my daughter and I found ourselves in a joyful crowd of thousands near the the Arc de Triomphe, singing and chanting and urging our fellow humans to cut back the burning of fossil fuels.
One evening, my daughter and I went for a walk in the Marais district We ordered two crepes au chocolat from a stall and strolled the pedestrian Rue de Rosier, in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter. We found ourselves in front of a building with a large menorah on display; it was the last night of Hanukkah.
Only later did I learn this restaurant was the site of Chez Goldenberg, a restaurant attacked by machine-gun wielding terrorists in 1982–an event with eerie similarities to 2015. I didn’t know this at the time, but even so, I was certainly on my guard that night, a vague feeling of unease following close behind us.
The last day of our stay, we met a friend who lives in Paris and together we paid a visit to a museum I’d been anxious to see for some time: Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature.
Founded in 1964 by a wealthy businessman, the museum’s collection is dedicated to animals– or more specifically, the hunting of animals. For a long time it was a rather humdrum collection of taxidermy and rifles, but in recent years it’s been reborn as an elaborate and strange palace of wonders.
Not far from the entrance, you encounter a darkened room that lets you know this is not an ordinary museum. The entire ceiling is decorated a carpet of feathers and the heads of three owls. You have entered heart of darkness, and it stares right back at you….
All of the rooms in the museum are lavishly decorated: the upholstered armchairs, dark damask wallpaper, antique inlaid cabinets, and art deco flourishes are exquisite. The walls are crammed with paintings in gilded frames: huntings scenes, animals fighting one another, depictions of Diana (goddess of the hunt), and a fair number of nature mort: dead animals. The whole place feels as though it’s jumped from the pages of Huysmans novel–you half expect at any moment to see a jewel-encrusted tortoise wandering about.
As you meander, you realize something’s not quite right here. In the Trophy Room, bursting with taxidermed heads of a deer, buffalo, gazelle, moose, rams, cheetahs, lions, and wildebeest, you begin to hear a low growling sound. One of the heads, a specimen of the extremely rare boar sus scorfa albinos, has come to life. From its tusked jaws it utters a guttural, zombie-like groan.
We flee and take refuge in another room packed with weaponry: muskets and rifles, delicately engraved blunderbusses and flintlocks, shotguns and crossbows, filigreed spears and double-barreled fusils, elephant guns and powder horns, finely-crafted carbines and an array of royal arquebuses that could take down a bear or a rebellious peasant as needed. But amid the neatly organized cases, one discovers weird weapons: arms crafted of hunks of wood from Guinea, coral from New Caledonia and melted blobs of metal. These are nomadic arms of no use, created by the contemporary artist Rodolphe Hammadi.
And wait, isn’t that a ceramic puppy by Jeff Koons? And what’s that ancient automobile, its windows entwined in a maze of tree branches? The museum docents, avuncular old men who are extremely chatty, are more than willing to explain everything. They direct you to the card-playing collection of baboons, or point out a royal rifle the King of Sweden recently handled, since it belonged to one of his ancestors. And don’t forget to find the mouse, they say, cheerfully pointing to a painted hole from which our little friend peers out. And while you’re there, have a look above at the ceramic depiction of a pigeon eating a rat–is there a more fitting emblem of the state of wild nature in contemporary Paris?
We dutifully pose in front of the polar bear standing on his hind legs–he’s larger than the costumed variety we’d seen the day before at the climate change protest, and it occurs to me that perhaps in my daughter’s lifetime, this will be all that’s left of the creatures: taxidermy designed for posing with selfies.
It’s all quite ironic and droll, and gripping–a bit like watching elegantly staged car wreck. In the Cabinet of the Wolf, with its stationary creatures and peep-hole kinetoscopes of glimpsed wolves in the woods, we read the history of Europe’s meticulous slaughter of canis lupus lupus. You begin to realize this is a museum dedicated to fear. To fear of the dark and all the wild critters beyond the firelight that might have eaten you once upon a time (or at least your flocks of sheep). The museum is a monument to the tales of the Grimm Brothers: stories laden with hungry predators, unseen malicious forces, and delicious children. Here one finds the reliquaries of that heredity fear our cave-dwelling ancestors bequeathed us: the panic that wakes us in a nightmare, certain we are being chased by a snarling beast with glistening teeth.
During our visit, the collection was interspersed with a temporary exhibit by the extraordinary American artist Walton Ford. He’s a post-modern Audubon who creates massive watercolors of anatomically accurate beasts and fowl–but set in situations that make clear the cost of humanity’s interaction with them. In his pictures we find a contemplative chimpanzee chained up as London burns in the background circa 1666, or a massive rhino attempting to escape a ship sailing for Belgium, or a snake eagerly gobbling up a flock of colorful tropical birds.
For this particular installation, Ford has created a series of paintings inspired by the Musée de la Chasse collection. Amidst the taxidermy foxes and statuary, you occasionally spot a massive, black canine creature wreaking havoc upon the world, snarling at the viewer, or pulling down large animals. This is La Bête du Gévaudan, the legendary Beast who lurked the woods of south-central France between 1764 and 1767, and killed more than one hundred people by ripping out their throats. These attacks sent France into a frenzied panic, and King Louis XV dispatched leagues of royal huntsmen to the mountains of Gévaudan to track down and murder the monster. Ford has imagined this imaginary beast in deliciously horrible detail (one painting of the hellhound devouring a dog is helpfully labeled “Representation Veritable.“)
In the end, the specific beast responsible was never identified. But after centuries of hunting and poisoning, wolves were largely eradicated from western Europe by 1800.
In one corner of the museum, I find a case cluttered with curiosities: prints of chimpanzees dressed as children in everyday scenes, ceramics illustrating smartly-dressed hunters (some of them perhaps members of the louveterie, the king’s personal corps of wolf-hunters). And on one shelf sits an old apothecary jar containing a few bits of egg shell. The jar is labeled with the name Raphus cucullatus: The Dodo. The expiration date for this particular “medicine” is 1693.
Perhaps it’s a scrap of egg collected by Isaac Johannes Lamotius, the Dutch governor of Mauritius, who was an avid hunter and naturalist, and the last man to report seeing a Dodo alive. How these fragments mysteriously made their way to this Borgesian menagerie we shall perhaps never know. Representation Veritable.
As we made our way out of this marvelous museum under the glassy eyes of the polar bear and all those other creatures humans have stalked and shot and stuck upon the wall for centuries, I recalled the slightly hunted feeling I’d felt the night before on the streets of Paris. And with a sudden shock, the identity of the beast who haunts this museum became perfectly clear.
La bête, c’est moi.