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Introduction

Mediocre lives, it seems, leave little mark upon their world. Many histories of the nineteenth century, especially political and intellectual ones, present the ordinary bourgeois Parisian as the dull and uncomplicated object of forces greater than his or her understanding. Ideas current within high culture, like alienation, seem to be too fragile to find expression in the heavy bric-a-brac of the bourgeois interior. And yet one key to the complexity of nineteenth-century culture, like the hiding place of Poe's purloined letter, has been in full view before us.

A passing reference to petkeeping by Walter Benjamin in his essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," suggested the focus of this book. "Around 1840," Benjamin says, "it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace." Benjamin goes on to explain that "this attitude did not prevail."[1] Benjamin's comment about turtles and Parisian flâneurs, about marginal people and their referentially marginal pets, is a statement about modem life. What I realized when I came upon Benjamin's mention of turtlewalking was that the meaning of Paris to Parisians might equally be teased out of mainstream petkeeping culture.

It was in the nineteenth century, after all, that the family dog became a cliché of modem life. Many of the other familiar aspects of petkeeping had their beginnings in bourgeois culture also, either as inventions of the age or as refigurations of earlier motifs. More important than the novelty of nineteenth-century petkeeping, however, is its transparency. What immediately emerges from the sources on petkeeping in nineteenth-century Paris—the dog-care books, the bulletins of the Société protectrice des animaux (animal protection society), the records on the dog


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tax, the histories of the dog cemetery, the data on disease and medical and veterinarian records that span the century—is their strikingly self-referential nature. When bourgeois people spoke of their pets, as they loquaciously did, they pointedly spoke also of their times, and above all else of themselves.

Petkeeping involves us in the culture of ordinary people. In explaining it we suggest how the nineteenth century took shape, in everyday events, in ordinary life, and argue that the experience of modernity by ordinary people was as complicated, and just as complicit in its shaping of reality, as was the experience of intellectuals whose elitist critiques of bourgeois life have shaped our general understanding of the age.

Behind the striking development of petkeeping forms are the tensions within bourgeois culture that shaped them. Petkeeping describes the fault lines of individualism. The ever-faithful pet was a fiction that had its origin in antiquity. When nineteenth-century Parisians elaborated on it, they put into context what seemed most lacking in relationships between their contemporaries. Petkeeping imagined a better, more manageable version of the world. It described the promise and sometimes displaced the terrors of class.

The role of this fantasy in building bourgeois life is significant. Petkeeping relieved the pressures of contemporary life. It also undermined the rewards of modernity. Bourgeois domesticity was claustrophobic, its restrictions were unhealthy—as the wilder, somatic consequences of petkeeping revealed. On another level, positivism itself was less promising when its values were weighed against the vulnerability of pets.

Petkeeping in Paris was bourgeois because its participants so labeled it, contrasting the "bourgeois dog" with "working-class" and "Oriental" dogs, who supposedly led unstructured, more natural, and less cultured lives. The focus of this book, however, is not class struggle but an elaborate construction in the petkeeping world of affect and fantasy—set against a recognizably imperfect world—that includes the important problem of class.

Class conflict and politics were fundamental, of course, to the building of bourgeois culture and within it the fabrication of smaller more


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manageable worlds. In a major shift in consciousness, however, as ancien régime Paris irrevocably gave way during the Second Empire to modern commercial and domestic forms, the bourgeoisie became more concerned with the problem of modernity as a whole. This concern continued with declining creative force in everyday life from the 1850s until the First World War.

Petkeeping was not a startling innovation dreamed up by the Parisian bourgeoisie to help make sense of the world. Keith Thomas traces the development of sentimental attitudes toward small animals to seventeenth-century England and Harriet Ritvo's work on modern British history explains that culture's fascination with pets.[2] Petkeeping was an important aspect of ancien régime French life too. In a study of attitudes toward animals during the Enlightenment, Hester Hastings briefly reviews developments in petkeeping that contemporary eighteenth-century sources more graphically describe. Little dogs owned by wealthy women were already a trope of a decadent life; favored, faithful hunting dogs of nobles in the provinces resembled other canines in English country houses. In Paris rich and poor individuals alike owned dogs, creating a pattern like that distinctive of Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth century.[3]

Other cultures also give meaning to animals, as anthropologists insist. But the notion of a longue durée is of limited use when considering ideas of nature in history, as Alain Corbin argues. He explains that what is needed, rather, is "to examine in what manner and by what mechanisms people of each epoch and if possible in each social category have interpreted earlier structures (les schèmes anciens ) and have reintegrated them in a coherent ensemble of representations and practices."[4]

In nineteenth-century Paris the relation between animals and culture was especially well marked. Bourgeois Parisians insistently associated petkeeping with modernity and with themselves, an association that allows us to grasp their understanding of their culture. Petkeeping improvised solutions on a household level to the intractable mesh of postrevolutionary France.

As this book will show, Parisian petkeeping restates in another mode the century's central intellectual ideas—ideas about modernity expressed


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in literary and artistic representations and in ordinary nineteenth-century lives as well. Moreover, this book connects the creation of class cultures to these troubled, aesthetic responses to modernization. This book also suggests that it was the imagination—the realm of the aesthetic, as Kant explains—that largely shaped class, and that the unexpectedly esoteric realm of the ordinary is the place where we should begin our search for the bourgeoisie.


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