Human thighs and susceptible apes: Self-implicating category confusion in Victorian discourse on West Africa

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Abstract

Adapting the insights of Mary Douglas, this article examines moments of self-implicating category confusion engendered by the anomalous but linked figures of the gorilla and the cannibal, which appear in a number of important Victorian exploration narratives about West Africa. The writers under examination include Du Chaillu, Stanley, Reade, Burton, and Kingsley. The article explores how certain moments in these explorers' narratives are ultimately self-implicating, revealing an implicit, if unacknowledged, anxiety about the explorer's dual place: both within a taxonomic schema and also outside and above it, holding the schema itself in conscious awareness. The article traces a change over time, from the urgently sensationalistic representations of apes and cannibals in Paul Du Chaillu's travelogue the 1850s, reflecting his anxious desire to establish credentials as taxonomist, explorer, ethnographer, and big-game hunter in a part of the world which Europe had not yet decided to incorporate into its empires, to the self-confident zoological and ethnographic project of Mary Kingsley in the 1890s, which brought her much acclaim for her critique of European ethnocentrism, a critique to some extent enabled by the assumption of European mastery of Africa in the wake of the Congress of Berlin. By breaking the mirror relationship of primate gazing on primate, cannibal on cannibal, that was the sensationalistic underpinning of the narratives of earlier male explorers, Kingsley places herself outside of the masculinist adventure tradition embodied by Stanley in order to secure her place within the more sophisticated game of worldwide empire - as an ideologist of its emerging governing philosophy of indirect rule.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-107+219-220
JournalNineteenth Century Prose
Volume32
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005

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  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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