The body is important.
And yet, the body dies.
It seems such an obvious thing, death, and yet we live in a society that has somehow shunned death, as if it were some misbehaving Amish, which, by our disapproval, will somehow fall into line with our desires. But what are our desires? Do we even know what they are? Why is it that many people only come to know their true desires after a just-escaped-the-jaws-of-death experience? And why do we now have a subculture of extreme sports in which death, or at least an approximation of death, is courted? And, another question while we’re at it. Why, exactly, were the Grateful Dead grateful? I have never known.
Moreover, it seems to me that through much of history and throughout much of the world today, the truth is not that “in the midst of life we are in death”, but rather that in the midst of death we are in life. And such persistence in life, bare survival, is itself a miracle. So, is death made more frightening by its presence or by its absence?
The capricious nature of death comes to us most readily when we think about the great bubonic plague, which cast the ghastly shadow of the Black Death across Europe, haunting it for several hundred years. From this dark period of European history, we get “The Dance of Death” or the “Danse Macabre”: skeletons skipping around in circles, with their bony hands intertwined and their skeletal jaws grinning. From this epoch also comes perfume, to be dabbed lightly behind the ears and at the throat to keep away the noxious odors of the dead and the dying. Not to mention a little hint on the wrists, to be raised ever so gently should the other odor barriers fail. If one did not have perfume, a sachet of dried flowers, carried perhaps in the sleeve or at the bosom or in a pocket could be used. But we all know this already don’t we? We were first taught this truth in kindergarten:
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down!
Did I mention that the ring-of-roses is a description of how the first inflamed buboes appear on a plague victim?
And, yes, we all fall down, but not necessarily from the plague anymore. Except in certain parts of the world where it is still prevalent, whether in bubonic or pneumonic form, the latter of which can be still be found in the southwest United States.
The magnitude of death from the great bubonic plague truly escapes us. We are rightly Stalin’s children, in that we “view the death of a single person as a tragedy, but the death of a million as a mere statistic.” There is a church in the Czech Republic, the Kostnice Ossuary, which true to its name is constructed entirely from bones. It is thought that as many as 30,000 plague victims contributed their skeletons to this edifice. There are similar bone monuments throughout the world, and whether they are commemorating Argentina’s Dirty War, the excesses of the Pinochet or Pol Pot regimes, or the war in Vietnam, they serve to remind us that death is a constant presence and may come to us from the hand of the Grim Reaper or the hand of a neighbor. And sometimes, in some places, the grim reaper is a neighbor.
Mexico is, I think, such a place. With its annual Day of the Dead, a truly mestizo celebration, embodying the different but deeply profound indigenous and Spanish fascinations with death, not only is the Grim Reaper treated as a character of local repute but so are the folks he has harvested: your friends, neighbors, and family. They tell me that with increasing urban migration this festival is dying out. Unfortunately, this makes sense. When your family members are no longer located in the town cemetery or the in the village or ranch graveyard, the dead are no longer your neighbors and no longer to be loved with the same Christian charity as all your other neighbors should be loved.
Mexico is a country where life is precarious, and this precariousness makes life itself a constant memento mori, a reminder that you, too, will die. The fact you are here today is no guarantee that you will be here tomorrow and is, in fact, the very reason you will not be here someday. No doubt this could be viewed as a merely morbid thought, but it is also a freeing idea. The fact that one is dispensable is, in many ways, a welcome relief. This relief is what underlies all gallows humor. And the Mexicans have plenty of gallows humor of an almost slapstick variety. Calavera Catrina, a product of the Mexican Revolution-a multi-faceted civil war that occurred at the turn of the 19th to 20th century in the aftermath of Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship and which may or may not yet be resolved- and her coterie of dancing political skeletons are both sad and serious and gaily nonchalant. She herself wears a hat worthy of Minnie Pearl without the price tag. On the Day of the Dead, these skeletal amigos can be found on calendars and on posters, as sugar and candy skulls given to children, and on flower-strewn altars honoring those who have gone before. They are part of the decorations in the picnic basket that goes with the family as they sit out the night with their deceased loved ones in the local cemetery. They are the reminder that but for the grace of God you, too, would be dead, and, someday, by the grace of God, you will be.
Strangely enough, though, it is the anatomical precision of the Calaveras that is most striking. These are not humorous Halloween skeletons from K-mart; these are not comical assemblages of bones. These are the dead, haunting the living with a deadly irony, maybe even sarcasm. These are candy bones with facets and tuberosities and anatomical accuracy. These are the dead with purpose and intention; these are the dead who may be even more alive (or perhaps more lively) than the living. But what is it about a skeleton that conveys more personality than even a living person? It’s not for nothing that the skull-and-crossbones is called the Jolly Roger, you know.
But I wonder, too, whether it is not somewhat offensive to our amour-propre that the skeleton-or any body part for that matter-should be able to convey something about a human being after that human’s demise. Can there be personality in a body that is lacking a person? Is it some echo of this fear that Gunther von Hagen’s BodyWorlds provoked in so many of the exhibit’s viewers?
I don’t know.
For me, the exhibit was wondrous. Anatomy, the marvel of the body in all its intricacy, has always been a source of both amazement and pleasure for me. The gait, the gestures, the movement, and the expressions that a human body can communicate are sublime. I would like to think that it was an awe of what lies beneath the skin that so moved my fellow exhibit-goers, but I had a suspicion that for some people it may have been disgust.
Is there, perhaps, a relationship between this disgust of the body and our fear of death?
I suspect there is.
There was nothing inherently disgusting or offensive about the BodyWorlds exhibit. It was not a posthumously plastinated freak show. In fact, many of the models were three-dimensional renderings of the anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius, a 16th century Flemish anatomist, including one rendering of Saint Bartholomew, whose martyrdom as seen in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, gives a whole new meaning to-or was perhaps the origin of-the saying “skinned alive”. Several plasinations were refigurations of classic Greco-Roman statues and athletic poses. Moreover, I am fairly certain that the figure seated on the rearing horse was inspired by a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte.
But von Hagen’s plastination work stands, like da Vinci’s anatomical drawings as well as those of Vesalius, in the awkward interstitial space between art and science. We must assume that once upon a time Vesalius and da Vinci as well as their followers and students considered their anatomical drawings “scientific”. Perhaps these were illustrations useful for instructional purposes, whether for medicine or for painting and sculpture. They were, quite literally, studies in human anatomy.
But in eras where death was everywhere and many forms of punishment included the display of the criminal’s body, why were people “ignorant” of the body and its parts? In ages where most people still lived intimately with livestock and its subsequent slaughter for food, how is it possible that anatomy was some secret, esoteric knowledge? Why, for instance, was cadaver dissection anathema?
I would like to hazard a guess. It has to do with magic and its eventual substitution in the “Age of Reason” by mechanism. There is something about life that is magical. Anyone who has been present at a death (or a birth, for that matter) knows this feeling of magic. Someone who was there is now gone. Someone who never existed suddenly is. Where did they go? Where did they come from? How can they be gone, if their body is still here? Was he or she really already here when in utero?
We simply do not know, even though philosophies, religions, and legislation all ride on this essential ignorance.
Moreover, in the presence of a tremendously gifted dancer or athlete or singer, we all have the feeling that we are seeing something more than a mere mechanism at work. There is something there that is more than “mere” body. What we see in Mikhail Baryshnikov is something more than the sum of all his muscles. What amazes us in Michael Jordan is not just a product of his bone structure. What we admire in Bruce Springsteen is not just an output of vibrating vocal cords.
In our more poetic moments as a species we have called this “certain something” soul. Without this thing called soul, we fear that we are, all of us, nothing more than mere mechanisms. In von Hagen’s BodyWorlds we are faced with an array of these human mechanisms, all provocatively presented doing things we would consider the products of “soul.” There are body models playing chess, riding bikes, teaching school, engaging in sports, grouped as families, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, these dead bodies all have false eyes. There are windows to the soul, but we know that nobody is home.
How could death look so much like life? This is a frightening question, and it can lead to an even more terrifying one: how much of my life is really like death? How many times has someone looked in my eyes and there hasn’t been anybody at home? How many times in the midst of life have I been in death? And if life is so much like death, how could death itself possibly be an improvement? If, while I was alive and had the opportunity to live, I failed to do so, what will it mean when the opportunity itself is gone? Or will it be worse when I know I am about to die? Is dying, in fact, what is fearful, and not death itself?
I don’t know. But I think these are the kinds of existential questions that the BodyWorlds exhibit can raise. There are also, however, a set of experiential questions that it also raises. When I look at one of the plastinated models, do I see myself there? Do I see the magic in the mechanism that allows me to raise my arm? To sit on my haunches? To ride a bicycle? And if I don’t see that, then what am I seeing?
My guess is that for many people what they see is an inverted Frankenstein monster. Instead of gathering together dead body parts and creating a living being, von Hagen has taken living beings and divided them up into their body parts. So, instead of being amazed at the beauty and complexity of the hip joint in motion, all I see is…what? Meat, perhaps, at best? Something totally alien, at worst? Maybe there is a feeling of disappointment: is this all there is?
I think feelings such as alienation and disappointment are what prompted Mary Godwin Shelley to write Frankenstein in the first place, thus engendering the Gothic movement and laying the seeds for subsequent science fiction. It is also very important to remember that Frankenstein is the Doctor who created the monster, and that the novel is the story of their separate searches for identity and personal responsibility. In her novel Frankenstein, Godwin Shelley lays hold of two disparate themes running within the European intellectual milieu of the time: the spiritualized Romanticism that was a revolt against the scientization of human existence and the beginnings of a rebellion against reason as an organizing principle of human society and interaction. These two themes would merge and achieve their apotheosis in less than a century in the works of Freud and his erstwhile student Jung.
In the United States, this rebellion and revolt took the form of Transcendentalism. And it is in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that we find an examination of the relation of the body to its parts and the connection of that corporal relation to the human soul. For Whitman, as found in Poem 19, “I sing the Body electric”, “the body itself balks account”. Moreover, the conclusion of this poem states that the parts that make up the body also, somehow, make up the soul. And if the body “balks account”-is somehow incommensurable-then what about the soul that is related to it?
Understanding Whitman is made more difficult when we consider that “I sing the body electric” is apparently written from the perspective of a viewer at a slave auction. His point is that the bodies of those humans that were being sold before him are the bodies of true humans. There is nothing different or distinct about them. These slave bodies are ensouled just like other human bodies. Whatever it is we see in the human body of one person that makes us believe in a soul must be extended by similarity to all those who have such bodies, whether slave or free. If the body points to humanity, and humanity points to the soul, then, it follows that the body points to the soul.
But do we see a soul when we look at the human body? At our own body? At the plastinated bodies in the world of Gunther von Hagen? And if we don’t, what does that say about us? Can we see personality in the plastinated being before us? If not, does this mean that personality is not the soul?
I don’t know. I am a philosopher. I am paid to ask the right questions not to provide nice answers.
However, I do know this.
In the midst of life, we are in death, etc.