The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination
“Measurement began our might,” said Yeats; and naming the animals was Adam’s first task in the Garden of Eden. To name, sort, label, classify, and categorize—these are among man’s earliest instincts; but as Harriet Ritvo observes in The Platypus and the Mermaid, naming and categorizing are so closely related that to distinguish between them can be difficult. Yet the distinction is important. “What’s in a name?” asked Juliet; “that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” But the infatuated girl was confused. When she demanded, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she meant, “Wherefore art thou Montague?” and indeed she soon recognizes her mistake:
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.
But this was to fall into another error. Romeo was indeed a name only, but Montague was a classification also, assigning him to his family as exactly as the Linnean names assign an animal to its genus and species. It did expose a fact about him which no change of title could undo; for that matter, his Montague heredity had gone into the shaping of that hand and foot and face which Juliet so much admired. If he had not been Montague, he would not have been the man she loved.
But are some classifications arbitrary and subjective? And if so, do these subjectivities come to influence the way people think? It seems to be implicit through much of Harriet Ritvo’s book, and is at times explicit, that the answer to these questions is often yes. Her principal theme, in a book which draws her down a number of curious by-ways, is the classification of plant and animal specimens in nineteenth-century Britain. As it happens, the very name of her book has a certain instability about it. The full title is The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination: that is rather cumbrous, but it does try dutifully to give us an inkling of what the book’s contents may be. However, the half-title page and the typography of the dust jacket encourage us to reduce the title to its first five words. That gives a somewhat different flavor, suggesting a book that will be quirky, enigmatic, perhaps poetical (compare The Phoenix and the Turtle, another title which conjoins a real and a fabulous creature); and Ritvo seems to confirm the impression that she means to offer a bulging, motley ragbag, profuse in curious facts and information, by taking as her epigraph a sentence drawn from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus: “Considered as an Author, Herr Teufelsdröckh has one scarcely pardonable fault, doubtless his worst: an almost total want of arrangement.”
This quotation might also be read as preemptively defensive, though in fact the book’s organization is tolerably clear. Across five chapters she follows a line leading from academic science toward popular attitudes. She begins with arguments among biologists about the taxonomy of fauna, discusses attitudes to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.