AMONG THE STRANGER DOCUMENTS to be handed down to us from the 17th century are a series of drawings by the French artist Charles Le Brun, which claim to show similarities between various animal heads and various human personality types. An eagle-faced man is shown with too-large eyes and an improbably hooked beak-nose. A ram-faced man has a long, drawn-out face with a massive bridge shunting his eyes to the sides of his face. A cat-headed man has anime-sized round eyes and massive cheekbones that all but devour the demure mouth below. The camel-faced man is almost too grotesque to describe: wide, dumb eyes frame a flat, broad nose, while the jaw juts out beneath his caved-in brow.

Le Brun’s drawings are a rather extreme example of the long-debunked art of physiognomy, which purported to “read” individuals’ personality types via their facial features. Likely inspired by similar images from the Italian Giambattista della Porta from 1586, Le Brun’s pencil sketches are far more refined and artistically accomplished, and, perhaps as a result, far more bizarre. They seem more like a classical precursor to K. A. Applegate’s YA series Animorphs than they do any accurate depiction of actual human faces.

Le Brun’s images were done for two lectures he gave in the fall of 1668, the text of which has since been lost. Earlier that year, he’d promised a lecture on “Physiognomics, and the different effects that the passions produce according to the diversity of those who are subject to them,” while also demonstrating “the signs that identify the natural inclinations of men” in relation to animals. But without the exact text of the lectures accompanying these images, it’s hard to know for sure exactly what to make of them. Did Le Brun hope to reaffirm a long-held opinion that each animal had a stable and unchanging allegorical value, and that these could be traced in the faces of men and women? Would the lecture have affirmed a view of the world in which all animal life was subordinate to humanity’s own self-regard? Or did Le Brun’s drawings mean to dissolve a fundamental division between human and animal, to reveal how we are all united far more closely than anthropocentric religion and science would have us believe?

This is one of many questions that preoccupies the historian Peter Sahlins in 1668: The Year of the Animal in France. As it happens, Le Brun’s sketchwork turns out to be just one moment in a momentous year in which everyone, it seemed, was looking at animals with new eyes. “Indeed,” Sahlins writes, “it could be argued that the foundational modern distinction of ‘human’ and ‘animal’ as incommensurable and totalizing categories was born of 1668, or at least of the mid-seventeenth century.”

Sahlins’s book revolves around the shift from what he terms “Renaissance humanimalism” to “Classical naturalism,” an epistemological shift that entailed a radical devaluation of animal life. Renaissance humanimalism, he explains, “refused the clear ontological distinction of ‘human’ and ‘animal,’ underscoring the kinship and community across the species boundary,” while at the same time remaining “broadly human-centered, at once anthropocentric and anthropomorphic in its understanding of animals.” Humanimalism had seen its best articulation in the writings of Michel de Montaigne, who, in 1576, had asserted, contrary to Christian anthropocentrism, that animals were both moral and rational. In fact, he went further: they were even more moral than humans, who had after all been corrupted by the Fall. “Animals,” Montaigne comments, “are much more self-controlled than we are, and restrain themselves with more moderation within the limits that nature has prescribed to us.”

At least since Aesop, animals had long been used by pedagogues as moral exemplars. Augustine defended the use of such allegories against detractors who claimed that they did not accurately depict animal behavior, by stating that their moral value was more vital; another early church theologian, St. Ambrose of Milan, went further, insisting that “we cannot fully know ourselves without first knowing the nature of all living creatures.” In his 1623 text Mysterium magnum, the German theologian Jacob Boehme wrote that man is “a Beast of all beasts”: “[There are] various properties in man: as one a Fox, Wolfe, Beare, Lion, Dogg, Bull, Cat, Horse, Cock, Toad, Serpent: and in briefe as many kindes of creatures are upon the earth, so many and Various properties likewise there are in the earthly man.”

Montaigne, then, was building, however idiosyncratically, off a long tradition that had seen animals as useful pedagogical tools for understanding human morality. He merely took this tendency to its logical conclusion: if animals were moral exemplars, they must be more moral than we fallen sinners are. Even with this privileging of the morality of animals, though, they were still seen as subordinate to humanity. “Renaissance humanimalism was anthropocentric and allegorical,” Sahlins notes.

In the moral universe of emblems and fables, in religious sermons and moralist writing, in political pamphlets and literary texts, and even in much of natural history, authors and artists used animals to symbolize the entire range of human behavior, both vices and virtues, but they especially modeled human goodness and virtue on examples drawn from the animal world.

Animals, in other words, were conceptualized, within the schema of Renaissance humanimalism, in one of two ways: either as physically and materially useful to humans (as food, as clothing, or as workers) or as allegorically revealing of human character.

If Montaigne represents the culmination of the humanimalist tradition, Descartes represents the inception of the naturalist one. For the great philosopher, animals were not exemplars of moral principles but merely machines reacting to immediate stimuli. Not only were they not moral or rational: they weren’t even conscious, functioning as nothing more than automatons. “For although [animals] lack reason, and perhaps even thought,” Descartes wrote in The Passions of the Soul,

all the movements of the spirits and of the gland which produce passions in us are nevertheless present in them too, though in them they serve to maintain and strengthen only the movements of the levers and the muscles which usually accompany the passions, and not, as in us, the passions themselves.

This new approach, which Sahlins calls Classical naturalism, offered a severe rupture from Renaissance humanimalism. It sharply devalued animals as beings and as symbols, and it de-allegorized them, insisting that they be represented in art as they were “in nature.”

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Descartes’s reevaluation of animal life was written in 1643, but not published until 1668: the same year, Sahlins observes, that Louis XIV’s royal menagerie, which had opened in 1664, was mostly populated. Breaking with tradition, the Sun King mostly opted not to continue the royal tradition of staged fights between large carnivores, putting his energy instead into a stunning zoo filled primarily with birds (with their wings clipped, of course). This decision shifted the symbolic resonance of animals in the royal court; Sahlins refers to it as a “civilizing process.” Where previous kings had emphasized their animals’ ferocity in order to make their domination by the sovereign all the more impressive, Louis XIV’s creatures were elegant exemplars of courtly refinement: “the birds and mammals represented in the Royal Menagerie,” Sahlins notes, “were idealized models of courtiers and, indeed, of human themselves.”

Louis XIV’s animals, Sahlins argues, were

agents in the making of early modern France, even as their agency extended to their dead bodies and painted representations. […] [T]he live bodies and representations of the Versailles menagerie animals and others, especially their symbolic afterlives, were themselves used to think about the central dimensions of early French modernity in the seventeenth century.

The king’s menagerie, coupled with the emergence of Descartes’s mechanical vision of animal life, provoked a confrontation with animal life throughout French culture. Sahlins traces the effects of the new Classical naturalist paradigm through a number of different endeavors, including the animal anatomies of Charles Perrault, the novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, the tapestries of Pieter Boel, the first animal-to-human blood transfusions by Claude Perrault and Jean Pecquet, even a series of dissections of dead chameleons. All of these endeavors, he suggests, were motivated at least in part by the Sun King’s absolutist tendencies: “Alive, the animals appeared as part of this allegorical and moral tradition. But after their short lives, the Crown began to make new uses of their bodies — in tapestry, in natural history, and in academic drawing — as part of a new stage in the project of royal glorification.”

A naturalist portrait of the royal lion, for example, by Pieter Boel, sketched him from behind, showing his haunches and highlighting the skeleton and musculature beneath — a scientific rendering, completely devoid of any of the usual symbolic associations with the animal. But by placing such animals amid classical ruins, as Sébastien Leclerc did in his anatomical portraits of animals from the menagerie, they were nonetheless reinscribed within Louis XIV’s domain and power. This process didn’t just happen in symbolic art: naturalists, biologists, and medical doctors likewise used the Sun King’s animals, indirectly or not, to further this new articulation of the king as the center of France and the world. Because, in many cases, new scientific and artistic endeavors were funded by the king, they necessarily reflected a tension between pure science and proper homage to the absolutist reign of Louis XIV. “[T]he afterlives of selected animals from Louis XIV’s animal collections signal a tension between the goals of scientific inquiry,” Sahlins writes, “and the realization of the project as a form of royal propaganda.”

The court’s ideology found its way into the images it commissioned in a myriad of ways. Sahlins observes, for instance, that the most salient aspect of Le Brun’s animal faces is not in the faces themselves, but in the simple shirts and caps the figures are wearing, which mark them as “subjects of the lower social orders, peasants or artisans, those social groups most likely to exhibit the bestial behavior that was the opposite of civilité and civilization.” Rather than embracing a pure equivalence between animals and humans (or rejecting it entirely), Le Brun instead made it a class issue, adapting della Porta’s earlier images to a hierarchical view of humanity that suited the Sun King’s reign.

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But how momentous, truly, was the shift marked by 1668, the Year of the Animal? As Sahlins notes repeatedly, the break wasn’t as decisive as Louis XIV hoped, nor was it as complete as later historians would have likely preferred. As its title suggests, Sahlins’s book hinges on the notion that 1668 was a turning point, that there was a clear “before” and “after.” And yet, he is constantly adding caveats to this strong claim that affect both the chronology and the very meaning of the Year of the Animal. Often the exact date is qualified in some fashion: “in and around 1668,” “in and after 1668,” “1668 and its aftermath,” et cetera. The end of the book contains a “Partial Chronology of the Year of the Animal,” which runs from 1661 to 1669, suggesting that, while 1668 wasn’t quite the singular crux Sahlins claims elsewhere.

Similarly, though Sahlins presents an argument that the transition from Renaissance humanimalism to Classical naturalism represented an epochal change, he’s constantly equivocating there as well. A typical example comes in his discussion of how the Royal Academy of Sciences used animals “in a new and naturalist vein, disentangling, if never completely, the intertwined histories of human and animals, and shedding, but never entirely, the emblematic and allegorical history of animals” (emphasis added). Despite the rapid changes in scientific understanding, centuries-old biases still prevailed: when Perrault and Pecquet’s animal-to-human blood transfusions failed, there was serious discussion as to whether or not this was because animal blood was purer than human blood, since it was not corrupted by The Fall, or because it was less pure, since animals were more savage than humans. Plus ça change.

Sahlins’s fidelity to the messiness of the historical record undercuts his book’s own promise of a clear and sharp demarcation of a paradigm shift. This may be in part a function of genre: as an academic historian, Sahlins is both obligated to stake strong, objective claims, and, at the same time, duty-bound to nuance and qualify those claims, even if that ends up all but destroying them. 1668’s thesis may well prove generative for other historians, but for the lay reader its subject matter might have been better served by a more essayistic set of digressions and diversions, in which Sahlins could have invoked many of the speculative and evocative claims without feeling obligated to land so hard on a thesis that he’s unable, and unwilling, to fully defend.

The problem may also lie in the subject matter itself, since animals on display are (almost by definition) resistant to our totalizing gaze. In zoos, John Berger wrote in 1980’s About Looking,

[T]he view is always wrong. Like an image out of focus. […] However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it.

The zoo, for Berger, is always a site of missed connections:

[N]owhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can anymore occupy a central place in their attention.

Berger associates this lack of recognition with the Industrial Age, when zoos became commonplace; it’s clear from Sahlins’s work that this primal scene of misrecognition can be traced back further. But Sahlins, too, ultimately seems to miss something about his subject. The animals on display remain elusive, and attempts to translate them into anatomical drawings, or imaginative literature, or historical scholarship succeed only in pushing them that much further away.

Which brings us back to the strange, unsettling images of Charles Le Brun. Given the long history of humanity’s attempt to render animals into symbols of human behavior and action, Le Brun’s images are barely worth a mention. But what makes them so bizarre is how ham-handedly he’s trotting out a formula that others have handled with more grace, shoehorning the animal and the human together to the point that the distortionary effect of such a process is revealed. In looking at Le Brun’s faces we see the futility of all attempts to connect animality to human behavior — and in the process, with any luck, we can reflect that realization back to the many, far more subtle, ways in which we bend the identity of animals to our own reflections. Rendered in penciled lines both artful and grotesque, Le Brun’s studies reveal to us the entire fiction on which our approach to animals is based, and if 1668 is a year worth taking note of, it’s because of the way that the great minds of Europe spent that year desperately trying out new ways to convince themselves that animals reflect us.

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Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.