A modern bestiary

May 3, 2013 • 9:51 am

by Greg Mayer

Last month the University of Chicago Press published The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson. I’ve not seen the book yet, but it seems to be a natural history of a diverse set of odd and interesting animals, in the style of a classic or medieval bestiary, and The New York Review of Books has published a chapter excerpt, the one on the octopus.

Greater blue ring octopus, Indonesia, from NYRB.
Greater blue ring octopus, Indonesia, from NYRB.

A taste of the excerpt:

In Victor Hugo’s 1866 blockbuster, Toilers of the Sea, the hero is caught in the grip of a giant octopus. The creature is “the very enigma of evil, a viscosity with a will, a boneless, bloodless, fleshless creature with one orifice serving as both mouth and anus, a medusa served by eight snakes, coming as if from a world other than our own.” Hugo seems to have read his Pliny, but he pulls out all the stops in wild exaggeration and extreme anatomical confusion:

It is a pneumatic machine that attacks you. You are dealing with a footed void. Neither claw thrusts nor tooth bites, but an unspeakable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than such suction. The claw is nothing compared to the sucker. The claw, that’s the beast that enters your flesh; the sucker, that’s you yourself who enters into the beast. Your muscles swell, your fibers twist, your skin bursts beneath this unworldly force, your blood spurts and frightfully mixes with the mollusk’s lymph. The beast is superimposed upon you by its thousand vile mouths….

Coincidentally, I was just mentioning octopuses to my evolution class the other day, noting that while the eyes of octopuses and vertebrates are not homologous as eyes— the common ancestor of mollusks and vertebrates did not have eyes, nor did the common ancestors of each of the two groups (there are many primitively eyeless mollusks and chordates alive today)– their eyes are developed, in part, from common genes, opsins and crystallins. Their visual systems exhibit what is sometimes called deep homology— the structures of modern forms were not present in the common ancestor, but some of the genes that contributed to the convergent or parallel evolution of the structures were present in distant ancestors.

Octopus are also known for their smarts, their ability to travel overland for short distances, and their strength, as well as their eyes. The following video highlights their strength

15 thoughts on “A modern bestiary

  1. Caturday will have to be extra special to make up for this … this treason!


    (Seriously, octopuses are really neat and cool)

  2. Hmm, that blue ringed octopus is really pretty. Is that the deadly poisonous one?

    1. Indeed it is. The same toxin that makes eating sashimi fugu such an exciting, machoistic experience, if I remember correctly.

  3. Oh boy, Victor Hugo. You’ve got me started…

    Hugo was a great writer. Even if the fight with the squid is a bit off, “Toilers of the Sea” is a very exciting novel. It’s set in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. As usual with Hugo, he takes his jabs at the holy men. He says that the early steam powered boats in the English Channel were called “Devil Boats” by the pious. The boats won out, though, because they got the fish to market in better shape and the men home more regularly.(I have the Isabel F. Hapgood translation edited by Patricia LeChevalier.)

    My favorite Hugo novel, however, is “The Man Who Laughs.” With Hugo, you are immersed in this dark era and dark story. It begins on the Portland Bill, “…toward the close of one of the most bitter [cold] days of the month of January, 1690.” Another treat in this book is its anti-clerical wit. A little sample:

    Fortunately Ursus had never gone into the Low Countries: there they certainly would have weighed him … Nothing was simpler or more ingenious … Too heavy you were hanged; too light, you were burned. … To this day, the scales in which sorcerers were weighed may be seen…but they are now used for weighing cheeses: how religion has degenerated.

    English translations of Hugo’s novels are somewhat notorious, so one has to be careful. The one I have is the Joseph Blamire 1888 translation revised by Patricia LeChevalier. I don’t know if or where you can get this now, so the next best thing, I believe, is likely the Blamire translation available at amazon (44.95–ouch). (I don’t read French, so I just go by things I’ve read about the translations.) They show a Kindle edition, but I would not expect this to be by the same translator–I would find a way to check before buying. (It’s free now so I guess you could download it and check that way. Actually, I’m not even sure the translator is even mentioned.)

    There is a 1927 silent film, but this movie is in serious need of a remake. I have no doubt that the screenplay of this powerful–almost crushing–story would be difficult, however, I know one exists now. (I haven’t read it and have no idea if it’s any good.) So, if you produce movies in your space time, I urge you to look into making “The Man Who Laughs.” (maybe 3 hrs)(Oh yes, it’s NOT a horror story as some have said. It’s hard to believe someone would say a stupid thing like that.)

  4. Octopus are fascinating – we so rarely think of invertebrates as “intelligent”, but octopus have demonstrated play behavior, as well as puzzle solving ability.

    Also, to repeat an old joke, if eyes are designed, apparently the designer prefers cephalopods to vertebrates.

  5. The photo of the poisonous fellow is very pretty. I really love octopuses, especially their eyes.

  6. I have the UK version of this book printed by Granta and, even as a physical object, it is utterly stunning, filled with illustrations and marginal illuminations. I would highly recommend this version if it is not the same as the US one (I haven’t checked), and make it a hardback.

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