Victor Hugo on Cephalopods

To believe in the octopus, one must have seen it. Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.

Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod were only able to make the Chimaera; God made the octopus. When God wills it, he excels in the execrable. And all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece.

Its most terrible quality is its softness. A glutinous mass possessed of a will — what more frightful? Glue filled with hatred.

At night and in its breeding season, it is phosphorescent. This terror has its passions. It awaits the nuptial hour. It adorns itself, it lights up, it illuminates itself; and from the summit of a rock one can see it beneath, in the shadowy depths, spread out in a pallid irradiation, — a spectre sun.

It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn the eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

(Excerpted from five pages of Toilers of the Sea, II iv 2, “The Monster”: Toilers of the Sea, p. 157; Les Travailleurs de la mer, p. 199)

This passage, which has been cobbled together from the most vivid lines of a long chapter, adequately represents Hugo’s capacity for excess.

For me, Hugo is an enormous nuisance. One of the great writers and public intellectuals of the 19th century, dominant in French poetry for decades, prolific for sixty years or more (he kept on writing after Rimbaud quit), the source of a hundred or so movie scripts, Hugo remains internationally popular to this day. But I find him impossible to read. It’s very fortunate that this post is part of a series about cephalopods in literature and philosophy and not about Hugo. (Aristotle is linked below, and Erasmus is next, and then maybe Melville).

Since Les Travailleurs de la mer was published in 1866, the Guernsey dialect name for the octopus used by Hugo, pieuvre, has replaced the older name poulpe, which is now used only in cooking. Hugo’s book “spawned an unusual fad in Paris: Squids. From squid dishes and exhibitions, to squid hats and parties, Parisians became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures, which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.“*  Three years later Verne’s 10,000 Leagues under the Sea kept the squid fad alive, and perhaps the origination of the squid dystopia should be added to Hugo’s many other accomplishments. (Hugo’s monster is clearly an octopus, but fads aren’t picky about details.)

* This citation has been doubted and is probably junk wiki. It’s been labelled “citation needed” for at least 18 months by now. Like every other wiki article it has spammed the internet.  

Hugo was a pioneer radical Catholic, along with his friend Lamennais, and his horrible novelistic octopus is often thought to be symbolic of  the insidious and irresistible power of capitalism:

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….



ARISTOTLE ON THE SEX LIFE OF THE SQUID:

Now cuttle-fish and calamaries swim about closely intertwined, with mouths and tentacles facing one another and fitting closely together, and swim thus in opposite directions; and they fit their so-called nostrils into one another, and the one sex swims backwards and the other frontwards during the operation. And the female lays its spawn by the so-called ‘blow-hole’; and, by the way, some declare that it is at this organ that the coition really takes place.

Hokusai tentacle porn

“Octopuses” or “octopodes” is the plural of “octopus”

Octopus captures shark

Non-Aristotelean sex life of the squid

Squid have a preferred position, illustrated below, in which the male swims upside-down above the female, and deftly scoops out a spermatophore which he deposits in the females buccal cavity, while the male is flashing “mantle margin stripe”, “dark arm stripes”, and “fin stripes”, and she is showing off “white dorsal stripes”, “golden epaulettes”, and “rigid arms”.

Non-Aristotelean Sex life of the squid #2

The cool thing is that they [the squid] seem to be lekking. Lekking is a behavior best known in a few species of birds; all the males gather together in a small area, put on elaborate displays, and the females stroll among the males flaunting their stuff to pick and choose the most desirable. It’s a competitive scheme in which many males put on a show and fail…and it’s an excellent example of sexual selection in which female mate choice is paramount.

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 2:43 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. [...] anatomy enthusiasts makes it over to this entry, you may enjoy John Emerson’s philology of the horrible octopus; the rest of you may enjoy comparing les bousingots to your hipster [...]

  2. I actually quite like the octopus.

  3. Erasmus admired octopuses. But in general they’re an image of evil. In recent decades their high intelligence has raised them in human estimation. They’re almost certainly the most intelligent invertebrates (along with squid) and this is especially amazing when you consider that they’re closely related to clams and barnacle.

    “Save the whales” is objectively anti cephalopod, by the way. Som,e thing that cephalopod numbers have increased as the sperm whale population has decreased.

  4. [...] when reading what Victor Hugo had to say about octopuses (none of it good) in Travailleurs de la Mer,  I came across this line: “The octopus is a hypocrite. You [...]


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