Forrest on Weil (2020)

Weil, Kari. Precarious Partners: Horses and Their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France. U of Chicago P, 2020, pp. 217, ISBN 978-0-226-68637-0

In the film Jumanji: The Next Level (Jake Kasdan, 2019), teenagers enter a video game as adult and animal avatars. In one scene, Mouse, zoologist and linguist, corrects Bravestone regarding his relationship to the camel he is about to mount: “he's not your camel; he's just giving you a ride!” Mouse learns later that he can communicate with camels: in fictional worlds, the marvelous can occur. Human-animal interactions, Kari Weil argues, however, are not so preposterous. Precarious Partners: Horses and Their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France explores the history and evolution of the complicated and ever-evolving human-horse connection during the century in which the horse featured prominently in the urban landscape, and was as well a key pawn in social-sexual mobility and identity. Drawing from literature, painting, popular entertainments, natural history, philosophy, and psychology, Weil examines the individuals and groups that defined their place in culture and society through the figure of the horse, and in some instances, through companionship with, and even the agency of, horses. During the nineteenth century, the horse often featured in deliberations on race, gender, social status, and the place of humans in the natural order.

In chapter one Weil contrasts the academic military portrait with Romantic-era paintings by Théodore Géricault depicting military men in a more equal and symbiotic relation with their mounts. In Géricault’s works the horse no longer submits to the will of his “master.” The painter places him beside his rider, capturing a gaze that appeals to the viewer just as forcefully as his human companion. The shift from the Cartesian notion of the animal as an unthinking, unfeeling machine to that of a being with will and desires had begun in the eighteenth century with natural historians like Buffon. In Buffon’s natural order, however, sentient horses abdicate their will to the superiority of man. Géricault’s endowment of horses with subjectivity, Weil argues, shakes confidence in humans’ dominant place in this hierarchy, as well as puts in question science’s claim to knowledge.

Weil marks changes in horse-human relations as well in the Enlightenment's embrace of a cult of sensibilité, which blurred the divide between mind and body, reason and feeling, human and animal. That animals possess an emotional life like humans implied the possibility of interspecies communication. The Grammont anti-cruelty law (1850) acknowledged animal sentience, particularly in horses, but in legislating moral behavior it also drove beatings of the ubiquitous workhorse from public view as well as censured the animal’s “master,” just when socialists sought to elevate the condition of the working class. Eugène Sue’s Godolphin Arabian (1845) highlights the complexity of this latter conflict in the depiction of the horse as worker and victim of abuse.

Like Géricault and Sue, Rosa Bonheur also emphasized the agency of horses whom she endowed with a subjectivity that redefined their contribution to labor as collaboration. That awareness belongs not only to the animals that she championed but also to all underrepresented groups. Behind the horse’s agency in Marché aux chevaux (1852-55), Weil argues, lies Bonheur herself, a female painter in a discipline dominated by men.

A challenge to traditional gender roles also emerged in the Second Empire with the rise of equine entertainments (écuyères) and of bourgeoises riding for pleasure (amazones). The horse did not stand in for woman as with Bonheur, rather the woman-horse couple threatened to displace male equestrian virility. An equestrienne like Adah Isaacs Menken was scandalous in the early burlesque practice of women playing the breeches role, strutting, talking, and performing acrobatics on a horse like a man. Women feeling invigorated and empowered astride their horses threaded through novels by George Sand (Indiana), Théophile Gautier (Mademoiselle de Maupin), and Edmond de Goncourt (Les Frères Zemganno). The sight of such exhilaration in amazones riding daily in the park served as a relentless reminder of that empowerment.

A thread throughout the book is the development of horse breeding in mid-eighteenth-century England and early nineteenth-century France, which led to the creation of Jockey Clubs devoted to horse racing. Creating thoroughbreds served as a model for counteracting human degeneration, an aim that became more pressing after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and rising depopulation. Weil charts the pursuit of purebreds in the first quarter of the century from the “spectacle of virility” of aristocratic men and their bourgeois imitators in the park ride to the acrobatic entertainments of the Cirque Molier in the last quarter, a practice captured in James Tissot’s paintings. Social psychologists like Gustave Le Bon turned to dressage to expound on the uses and benefits of physical training on morally inferior women, races, and the masses. Le Bon did not, however, set a negative course for horse-human relations in the twentieth century. On the contrary, Weil links his focus on equitation as a model of moral education to the establishment of the discipline of zoological psychology, which proposed that there is indeed affective transfer—communication—between humans and nonhumans.

It is difficult to do justice to the many rich critical veins explored in Precarious Partners, partially the result of incorporating considerable previously published material. While Weil provides critical continuity by returning to issues introduced in earlier chapters, expositionally sound arguments can nevertheless resist the introduction of new material. However, a welcome inclusion in the discussion of equitation as moral training would have been Paschal Grousset’s Ligue nationale d’éducation physique (1888), an organization opposed to Pierre de Coubertin and the sports movement. Under the pseudonym Philippe Daryl, Grousset wrote La Petite Lambton (1886), a novel based on the écuyère de haute école Émilie Loisset. The study might have also benefitted by examining Octave Mirbeau’s L’Écuyère (1882)—also drawing on Loisset’s life—which challenged the unmerited privilege enjoyed by aristocrats through his humbly born equestrienne whose symbiotic relationship with her horse and dog illustrate the animal magnetism that, as Weil notes, earned credibility in the scientific community at the end of the century. On the strength of its solid research and refreshing arguments, however, Precarious Partners’ human and her horse companion make a wonderful entrée en piste.