Main | prospecti »

Talking of Horses

"We had been talking of horses, if I remember aright, just before leaving the Rue C--. This was the last subject we discussed..." --Detective C. Auguste Dupin, to the narrator, in Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841)

Maybe because I lost so badly at the horse races last weekend, I've been thinking about the history of this odd sport/pastime in the U.S. Journalist/historian Edward Hotaling has published several books on horse racing (which he calls "America's first national sport"), including two on African-American jockeys. What, if any, relevance might horse racing have to my dissertation? Well, why had Detective Dupin and Poe's narrator, in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," been "talking of horses"? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?


I think the animals taking over the house at the end of Princess Tam Tam undermines earlier hints of a critique of "civilisation" in the film. Some elements of the scene are romantic (e.g., the lighting, the shots of Alwina gazing lovingly at baby ducks splashing across a pool, or puddle?), but, if I remember correctly, there is also feces on the floor, and, in the final shot, a donkey (degenerate horse) or mule (sign of amalgamation) starts to eat the white male protagonist's book (titled "Civilisation"). I think these images guide the audience to abhor, rather than romanticize, the north Africans' supposed living habits and show them as more ignorant than innocent. Yes-- I definitely should think about the associations of horses with Native Americans and Westerns. Speaking of, I just watched a horrifyingly imperialist western (imagine that) directed by Cecil B. De Mille and starring Barbara Stanwyck-- Union Pacific (1934). As the title suggests, it's more about the railroad than horses, but if you're looking for modernist stereotyping of Native Americans and/or romanticizing of Irish immigrants in the American frontier, it's a good starting place. But, back to horses: I think the significance of horses to southern identity (i.e., the Cavalier) is crucial too, esp. to understanding Poe. It could be productive to think about a merge of these various ideas and images surrounding horses from the Romantic to Modernist periods. One question: can a horse be a monster?

lauren and maddy: i love both of these readings. and i agree, lauren, that the maharajah character is especially intriguing in this film. i wonder what you make of the end of the film, with the animals "taking over" the house. i'll have to watch it again, i was mainly paying attention to the clothes the first time around. another horse thought: there are also associations with native american communities and with westerns. i was thinking about a film i saw a while ago, "call her savage" from 1932, with clara bow. i recall some horse-riding scenes, and some similar themes as "princess tam tam."

Excellent! So, now, I should confirm that Poe read Swift (but of course he did) and research if anyone has connected "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" to Gulliver's Travels! (BTW-- or not-- did you know that Swift was the deacon of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin? I saw his grave on my trip.) Oh, and I should really read Gulliver's Travels. Thanks, Maddy!! See, isn't the blog great? (Well, I think so.)

This doesn't have to do with horse racing per se, but definitely with horses. Personally, I think that any discussion that tries to bring together horses and race should really involve Gulliver's Travels.

Voyage IV is about Gulliver's association with the Houyhnhnms, a name that both represents an equine sound and inverts "human." I think voyage IV is an excellent study on race relations-- we have the yahoos, who are human, though animal, and the houyhnhnms (an animal) who have more power as they are more civilized.

Of course, the descriptions of yahoos are stereotypical ones of africans, complete with savagery and flat noses. The discussion of houyhnhnms presents a more complicated take: these "animals" are of course more "rational" and less emotional than both the yahoos and Gulliver himself and, in that sense, can easily be read as an indictment of the kind of savagery that has already been dismissed with the yahoos. Yet, ultimately, they are horses, and I wonder if Swift isn't really warning us about an obsession with rationality and curtailing emotion. (This is certainly the focus of Voyage III.) After all, the end of Gulliver's Travels, when Gulliver returns to his "home"-- his desire only to be with his horses is not, you know, a happy ending.

Anyway, that's just what I think.

Thanks for this comment and recommendation, Becky.

I'm worried about burn-out too, or more like starter failure.

However, I did just watch 'Princesse Tam-Tam'.
I'd never heard of its French director, Edmond Greville, before. Now I'm curious to see his horror film The Hands of Orlac (1960). Call them useful, call them procrastination, here are some observations on Tam Tam:

As Becky said, the film is really interesting, including its depiction of Josephine Baker with horses. The camera not only shows her displaying great, 'uncivilized' enthusiasm at the horse races but also briefly focuses on her representation in a high-society painting leading a race horse and subsequently displays a collage of caricatures exaggerating her teeth. Significantly, Baker's character in the film is only associated with horses when she (or, more like, the white male protagonist) is fooling the French that she is a "Princess of Parador." In contrast, when 'Tam Tam' is 'herself'-- Alwina, a North African street girl-- the camera often shows her in tandem with a small monkey, real or illustrated.

Perhaps it's obvious that, in the film, animal images guide the viewer's understanding of the contours of race. They suggest there is fluidity to racial identity as far as "Orientals" are concerned. The French, however, are shown as a homogeneous group that the film almost 'de-races' by calling "Civilisation." The Maharajah visiting France (a fascinating figure in the film) seems to be the only character savvy enough to properly read the racial differences of Others, although he lies to Lucie (the French male protagonist's wife) that he does not recognize Princess Tam Tam's ethnicity (or we might say he's telling the truth, that he can tell her origin is made up) and excuses himself by saying he's been in Europe too long. For this reason, I would almost say the Maharajah is a subversive character who reveals the Europeans' notions of racial difference as foolish constructions; however, despite courting Lucie through most of the film, in the end, he sanctions the film's message against miscegenation by telling (and actually showing) Alwina, "My house has two windows: one that open onto the Occident [showing the protagonist reunited with his wife], and one that opens onto the Orient [showing Alwina with the protagonist's Tunisian house servant]."

To me, the most interesting feature of the film is its use of close-ups. The film seems to teach viewers to read 'race' in stock facial expressions. Like Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah! (1929) (a King Vidor film I watched last week), Baker sticks out her tongue to signify her status as the dangerous, though childish, mulatta seductress. The Maharajah half-closes his eyes in several ridiculous close-ups. In this way, the film uses movement, as well as animal associations, to create visible evidence of race.

So, is horse racing a trope to suggest the legibility of 'race' (how meaningful is this pun?) in motion?

hi dawgs.

i recently saw 'princess tam tam' with josephine baker, and there was a horse-racing scene. it was a good film, even if you're not into horse-racing, there was interesting stuff in it about race, class, and gender.

how are you all doing? i am having some concerns about burn-out and also procrastination problems. a friend recommended this book, _writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day_, by joan bolker. i've been reading it and it makes me feel better. it doesn't actually tell you how to write your diss in 15 min/day, but there's good advice about writing and organizing, and it's comforting.