Schrödinger’s Tiger

Towards a Theory of Domestication

By Jessica Jakoinao


The Grief of the Pasha (1885) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

For the majority that are unfamiliar with the objects and settings mixed and matched within the frames of this orientalist painting, the Bengal tiger lying still on the dark blue ‘oriental rug’ could be either dead/dying or sound asleep. Hopefully, you fall into that majority. So, let it not matter, for this moment, its derivations, inspirations, or socio-historical contexts. Gaze and feel what you must—that is a sum of your subjective experiences. We’ll come back to this later. Until then, you’ll encounter many more felines in the art works and literature featured but take them to be the visual motifs alone. What I write next will only be a conversation on mankind and its fixation with the domestication of others—man, woman, nature. The real subject is you, the reader, in this thought experiment about to begin.

But first, a brief disclaimer: I make no pretence of an in-depth understanding of the principle of quantum superposition or the measurement problem. An intelligent conversation with me on the same, I’m afraid, will not be possible. However, a review of its loose application is welcome. And your endurance and compliance in reading a short poem followed by an even shorter one will be greatly appreciated. First up is the poem “La Douleur du Pacha” translated by Pascal Ifri, Associate Professor of French at Washington University, St. Louis. Following it in close pursuit is “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, a 1951 poem by American poet Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) from her first published book of poems, A Change of World. Read them as you scroll along to make sense of the references later. If preferred, you may also read the reproductions of Hugo’s and Rich’s poems from here and here respectively. The polyglots may read the French original here.

Frontispiece by Jean-Léon Gérôme in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, 1882.

The Grief of the Pasha

Separated from all that was dear to me, I am wasting away, solitary and desolate. BYRON

---What’s wrong with Allah’s shadow? The humble dervish was saying;
His alms are quite poor and his treasures quite rich!
Somber, immobile, miserly, he laughs with a bitter laugh.
Did he notch the sword of his father?
Or else of his soldiers around his lair
Did he see the stormy sea roar?

---What’s wrong with the pasha, the vizier of the armies?
The bombardiers were saying, their fuses lit.
Are the imams troubling his iron head?
Did he break of the Ramadan the austere fast?
Do they show him in a dream, on the confines of the earth,
The angel Azrael standing on the bridge of hell?

---What’s wrong with him? The stupid icoglans were murmuring.
Do they say that he lost, in the swift currents,
The ship carrying the fragrances that rejuvenate him?
Do they find in Stamboul his glory rather ancient?
In the predictions of some Egyptian woman
Did he see the mute man come?

---What’s wrong with the sweet sultan? The sultanas were asking.
Did he catch with his son under the plane trees
His favorite brunette with coral lips?
Did somebody soil his bath with a coarse essence?
In the fellah’s bag, emptied on the dust,
Is some head expected in the seraglio missing?

---What’s wrong with the master? ---Thus are the slaves fidgeting.
They all are mistaken. Alas! if, lost for his brave men,
Sitting, like a warrior who swallows an insult,
Bent, like an old man under the weight of the years,
For three long nights and three long days,
He has been crossing his hands on his forehead;

It is not that he saw the disloyal revolt,
Besieging his harem like a citadel,
Throw as far as his bed a sinister firebrand;
Nor of a father in his hand the old glaive become blunt;
Nor Azrael appear; Nor pass in a dream
The motley mute men armed with the black cord.
Alas! Allah’s shadow did not break the fast;
The sultana is guarded, and his son is too young;
No ship has suffered inopportune storms;
The Tartar did have his customary load;
In the seraglio, fragrant solitude,
No heads or perfumes are missing.

It is not either the collapsed cities,
The human bones darkening the valleys,
Greece burning down, prey to the sons of Omar,
The orphan, nor the widow, and her bitter complaints,
Nor the child butchered under the eyes of his poor mother,
Nor the virgin sold in the bazaar.

No, no, it is not those gloomy figures,
Who, with a bloody ray shining in darkness,
Upon passing in his soul have left remorse.
What’s wrong with this pasha, whom war is calling,
And who, sad and dreamy, cries like a woman?…
His Nubian tiger has died.

Victor Hugo (December, 1827)

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Adrienne Rich (A Change of World, 1951)

Le Tigre et le Gardien, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

In 1882, French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme was requested to illustrate a new edition of Les Orientales, a collection of poems by Victor Hugo (first published in January 1829). It was the last verse of Hugo’s “La Douleur du Pacha” (The Grief of the Pasha/The Pasha’s Grief) written in 1827, and included in the 1829 collection, that was the inspiration for the frontispiece drawing by Gérôme. This drawing preceded The Grief of the Pasha, painted much later in 1885; the more popular and better known of the variants.

If you noticed the two artworks—Gérôme’s 1882 frontispiece drawing of Les Orientales and Le Tigre et le Gardien (The Tiger and the Guardian/Keeper), another variant in oil—you’ll find that the ambiguity of the state of the tiger is starker than in The Grief of the Pasha. Does it portray a sleeping tiger with its keeper—dozing off while on duty? Is it more dolorous or humorous? I ask as Les Orientales deals with the theme of sudden death and destruction and has its poet taking a moral stance condemning the evils of the Turks and the recurring tyrant ‘Ali Pasha’. Yet “La Douleur du Pacha” displays a rare sense of humour on the part of its poet—who “in humor…is very deficient”—and only shows “a tinge of good-natured irony in the anticlimax of the answer”[⇗].

The Sultan’s Tiger, by Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant (1845–1902).

Now, observe the painting on the right. Hugo’s poem seems to have inspired another French painter, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. The Sultan’s Tiger effeminizes the sultan, as done in the second last line “And who, sad and dreamy, cries like a woman?” As for the tiger, looking rather limp and thin, having suffered domestication, it lies in an ambiguous state—if we disregard the poem’s last line. The sultan, clearly preoccupied with the tiger, has shirked all responsibilities. The pending affairs build up like the rows of guards and men behind. It’s got a hint of the comical unlike Gérôme’s that renders the last verse in a more endearing and tragic manner. What’s similar is how both painters sought to capture the ‘Orient’, equally done so by the poet in its other-worldliness for the Romantic French audience. An ‘other-worldly’ escape from the bourgeois ennui that sets in ever so often.

Funnily, the sultan here seems more like a stand-in for the painting’s French and European audience fixated on its exotic subject—the Orient. It’s no coincidence that Benjamin Constant painted The Sultan’s Tiger (1845-1902) in the midst of the French conquest of Algeria that took place between 1830 and 1903. The Orient was already being consumed through art and poetry. Similarly, Hugo’s Les Orientales, was written in the midst of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830). The ‘Nubian tiger’ of “La Douleur du Pacha” implied the ‘doom’ and dwindling power of the Ottoman Empire.

Another significant theme of Les Orientales was the oppression of women, native and foreign alike, enslaved under man and society. Yes, the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Miserables (1862), was quite the human rights activist. And as Megan Behrent puts it, “Despite the sexism he often exhibited in his personal life, Hugo had an early commitment to women’s rights”[⇗]. Similarly, Richard B. Grant in, “Sequence and Theme in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales” affirms that while “it is true that Hugo’s fascination with the exploitation of women in the East was tinged with erotic envy”,[⇗] he genuinely condemned the systematic sexual slavery of women, especially within the harem.

Mirroring this universal plight of women, is the poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” that describes an unhappy marriage through the metaphor of weaving. Embroidering tigers in a gendered space, a woman makes a mental escape but the weight of the wedding ring makes it hard to pull even the needle. With divorce being socially unacceptable, she will die oppressed. But, if it’s any consolation, the tigers will “go on prancing, proud and unafraid”.

But I must add that slavery in the Ottoman Empire—though fundamentally dehumanizing and cruel—was of a temporary nature and sexual slavery was a means for social mobility. Women who were otherwise made into domestic slaves could, in this way, climb up into the imperial harem to possibly become a Haseki Sultan as Ruthenia-born Hürrem Sultan. Boys too were accepted as masseurs, cross-dressing dancers, and wine pourers. The men would become military or domestic slaves and could later climb to the ranks of advisor or Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire as Christian-born Pargali Ibrahim (1523-1536) who was enslaved in his youth.

By the 1850s, the European and Christian slaves sold into the Barbary slave trade would be referred to and categorized under the term ‘white slavery’ while at the same time, a whole region—spanning three continents—was slowly being enslaved within ‘Orientalism’ that has had a lasting legacy continuing to this day. Similarly, the Barbary slave trade may have ended after the French and European occupations, but slavery continues. It even goes by the name ‘modern slavery’ since its ‘abolishment’.

You would have now begun to notice that the tigers symbolize quite a few things. And at this point, I’ll need Albert Boime’s scholarly assistance to introduce the phenomenon of man’s identification with animals as he does in a 1971 article on Gérôme’s works and his academic legacy [⇗]. Boime writes of how, at a universal level, it is manifested in different degrees beyond the schizoid, totemic, or neurotic. Humans unconsciously personalise an animal pet to “assuage feelings of loneliness” and in the process animals become “bearers of an individual’s transferred feelings, projections and identifications” which explains how they land up in coat-of-arms, insignia, or ceremonial rites. Gérôme’s felines express the universal wish to “transform an object of terror into a source of friendship and succour”, while at the same time “they provide a personal vehicle in the form of a wish-fulfilling surrogate who can be intimidated by neither terrestrial nor celestial forces.”

Tippoo’s Tiger.” Wooden semi-automaton consisting of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure
(ca. 1790, Mysore).

This brings to mind Tipu Sultan who, in 1872, “dispatched an embassy to Constantinople seeking confirmation of his title to the throne of Mysore from the Sultan of Turkey” []. The ‘Tiger of Mysore’ even adopted the tiger as a personal emblem and symbol of his rule (1782 -1799). To illustrate this fascination with tigers is a curious automaton—Tipu’s Tiger—believed to have been crafted and engineered by French artisans and army engineers.

Currently in the possession of The Victoria and Albert Museum, “the almost life-size wooden semi-automaton consists of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure in European clothes.” When a handle at its side is turned, the organ concealed inside the tiger’s body “can be played and the man’s arm simultaneously lifts up and down. Intermittent noises are supposed to imitate the wails of the dying man”[⇗].

The British made a discovery of it in the music room of Tipu Sultan’s palace after the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. Needless to say, it was claimed as a trophy and displayed in London; invoking a symbolic justification of British colonial rule among its viewers. In turn the British issued the ‘Seringapatam medal’ in gold, silver, copper-bronze and tin to award those who participated in the 1799 campaign. The obverse had the ‘British lion’ subduing the ‘tiger’ (the late Tipu Sultan’s government) while the reverse had a frieze of the storming of the fort. The hubris of one over another’s is astounding! And one will find the earth abound with such memorabilia that document man’s conceit and vainglory.

Seringapatam Medal, issued in 1808. Obverse: British lion overcoming a prostrate tiger.

At this point you’ve observed three paintings and one drawing, read through two poems, and witnessed an iconographic war. From the Ottoman ‘Orient’ to the Indian subcontinent, we have the various tigers—the pasha’s tiger, Gérôme’s from his inspired paintings and drawings, Aunt Jennifer’s, Tipu’s tiger, and of the Seringapatam medal obverse—in their individual settings mixed and matched within the framework of this thought experiment. Now familiar, let’s begin with the first question: What’s wrong with you? It’s a question not posed to a Shah or Modi; a Xi Jinping; a Lukashenko or a Putin; a Tatmadaw; a Vajiralongkorn; a Borisov; or a Trump, but to you.

The epigraph to “La Douleur du Pacha”, attributed to Byron reads, “Separated from all that was dear to me, I am wasting away, solitary and desolate”. It’s strangely befitting, for such is the collective state of all of humanity today. Be it a separation by death or distance from loved ones, from democracy, from the inalienable fundamental rights of man, or all of the above, one is “wasting away, solitary and desolate” while news of tragedies besides a pandemic—of police brutality, demonstrations, protests, an insurrection, political rallies, mass pilgrimages and exoduses—fade into white noise.

So, what’s been troubling you lately? Is it the forests burning? The poor man’s child unable to learn? Domestic violence on the rise? Gendered bodies sold in the bazaar? Children pulled out of schools and into child marriages? Missing beds, vaccine doses and oxygen cylinders? Mass graves and cremations fuelling the economy of death? Farmers downing pesticides? The migrant worker dying on the road? Bills mounting on debts? Depression gnawing at your innards? Or is it not these gloomy matters but cancelled vacations and get-togethers? While the nincompoops go on prancing, proud and unafraid? Are you that nincompoop? Did we judge the pasha too soon? How other-worldly is the ‘Orient’ or ‘Other’ when we find it within? Is the cat alive or dead? Are you psycho-emotionally unsound to make that call? Is Mona Lisa sad or happy?

Le Tigre et le Gardien in effect is a portrayal of man’s hubris and its fatal consequences in attempting to domesticate nature; with only nature being privy to the dramatic irony. With world leaders falling asleep at the wheel, the object of terror, rightly so, bites back. It is common knowledge that the emergence of zoonotic diseases are in fact exacerbated by man’s unscrupulous forays into the animal hosts’ natural habitat and by our patterns of food production. Biologists have already made the causational link between capitalist agribusiness and the recent epidemics.

But if one may still wish to point the finger at a single state or a people, one may just as well blame the current pandemic on Manu Ginobili, the four-time NBA champion, EuroLeague title winner and Olympic gold medallist who slapped down a bat that interrupted a game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings back in 2009. What resulted was Ginobili getting multiple vaccinations as precaution; the bat had survived and flown away. He later expressed regret over his actions—that had otherwise been applauded by the general public—acknowledging its danger, the place of bats in the ecosystem and cautioned others to avoid contact with bats, skunks, raccoons, and other such animals. Could this insult have been one of many consequential slaps in history such as the one that led to the French invasion of Algiers or sparked the Arab Spring? Is it silly to imagine a Chiropteran (of bats) culture that’s evolved a system of revenge; if not retributive justice?

Clearly, we do not know how to heed good advice in whatever form it emerges. Our incursions into their natural habitats have cost us gravely. The foundations for a pandemic such as this were laid much earlier. And in an unfortunate reversal of roles, it is as if mankind—now domesticated and confined indoors—were the tiger in The Grief of the Pasha. Except, nature weeps for none. And so I leave it with all of you: is the tiger dead, alive or somewhere between?


References

Behrent, M. (2013).The Enduring Relevance of Victor Hugo. International Socialist Review, 89[]

Boime, A. (1971). Jean-Léon Gérôme, Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy and the Academic Legacy. The Art Quarterly34(1). []

Grant, R. B. (1979). Sequence and Theme in Victor Hugo’s Les OrientalesPMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America94(5), 894–908. []

Jaeck, E. G. (1908). Goethe and Hugo: A Study of the West-Oestlicher Divan and Les Orientales. (No. 5967139). [M.A. Thesis, University of Illinois]. Research Publications from UIUC. [⇗]

Sil, N. (2013). Tipu Sultan in History. SAGE Open3(2), 215824401348283. []

V&A Museum. (n.d.). Tippoo’s Tiger. Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Weeks, E. M. (n.d.). Lot No. 44. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Le Tigre et le Gardien. [Catalogue Note, Sotheby’s]. []

Weeks, E. M. (n.d.). Lot No. 44. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Le Tigre et le Gardien. [Catalogue Note, Sotheby’s]. []

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