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The Poet’s Brain
What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?
Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.
A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.
It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.
On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:
These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.
Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.
First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.
As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .
The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.
Why all this effort? One might ask.
The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.
But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN
In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.
By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)
Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.
The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.
At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.
This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.
But what had really happened?
The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.” (3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.
But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.”
Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.
The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.
Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:
13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”
14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”
16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”
13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”
15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”
18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”
30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”
So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.
By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:
“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
June 9, 1924.
Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.
At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident. “
His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.
Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)
|↑1||James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)|
|↑2||Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020)|
|↑3||Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)|
|↑4||Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.|
|↑5||Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)|
Curiosa autobiografia d’un sacerdote extrapervertito
“Julia Pastrana” is coming!
I’m excited to announce the imminent release of my new book: Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman, for Logos Edizioni.
The book traces the life of Julia Pastrana (Sinaloa, 1834 – Moscow, March 25, 1860), who suffered from hypertrichosis and gingival hypertrophy; as a famous circus performer and “curiosity of nature”, she toured extensively the US and Europe, first with her manager J.W. Beach, and then with her husband Theodore Lent. While on tour in Moscow she gave birth to a child, also suffering from hypertrichosis, who survived for only three days. Julia fell victim to puerperal sepsis and five days later she followed the same fate of her son. After her death, Theodore Lent had both mother and baby embalmed, and continued to exhibit the two mummies in London and across Europe until his own death in 1884. The body of Julia Pastrana was exhibited at various fairs in Norway from 1921 until the 70s, and was eventually forgotten inside a warehouse…
The vicissitudes this woman had to endure, both before and after her death, make her an absolutely unique and relevant figure, so much so that she still inspires artists from all over the world: I think her story is quite exceptional even compared to the already incredible ones of many other freakshow performers, because it contains the germs of many current issues.
To me, Julia Pastrana unwillingly embodied a sort of tragic heroine; and like all the best tragedies, her story is about human cruelty, the clash between nature and culture, the need for love and redemption — but also the ambiguity, the uncertainty of existence. To tell all this, an objective, classic essay would not have been enough. I felt I had to try a different direction, and I decided to let her tell us her story.
Using the first person singular was a rosky choice for two reasons: the first is that there are parts of her existence we know very little about, and above all we ignore what her true feelings were. But this actually allows for a modicum of speculation, and gave me a bit of room for poetic invention even when sticking to historical facts.
The second problem is of an ethical nature, and that is what worried me the most. ulia Pastrana has had to suffer various prejudices which unfortunately are not only a reflection of the era in which she lived: even today, it is hard to imagine a tougher destiny than being born a woman, physically different, and of Mexican nationality. Now, I am none of these three things.
To fully convey the archetypal significance of her life, I tried to approach her with empathy and humility, the only two feelings that allowed me to insert some touches of fantasy without lacking respect.
I really hope that the finished text bears the evidence of this scrupulousness, and that it might entice the reader to an emotional participation in Julia’s troubled life.
Fortunately, the task of doing justice to Julia did not fall on my shoulders alone: Marco Palena, a young and talented illustrator, graced the book with his wonderful works.
Right from our very first discussions, I immediately found he had that same meticulous carefulness — even a bit obsessive at times — that also guided me in reconstructing the historical context where the events took place. The result of this extreme consideration is evident in Marco’s illustrations, which I find particularly sweet and of a rare sensitivity.
Pastrana, who was unfortunate in life as in death, finally found peace in 2013 thanks to the joined efforts of artist Laura Anderson Barbata, governor Mario López Valdez and the Norwegian authorities: her body was transferred from Oslo to Mexico, and buried in Sinaloa de Leyva on February 12 in front of hundreds of people.
Our book is not intended to be yet another biography, but rather a small tribute to an extraordinary woman, and to the indelible mark that her figure left in the collective imagination.
Julia is still alive.
“Julia Pastrana. The Monkey Woman” will be available starting October 21st, but you can pre-order your copy in English at this link.
(I remind you that ordering my books online through the official Bizzarro Bazar bookshop helps support my work.)
Finally, I invite you to follow Marco Palena on his official website, Facebook and Instagram pages.
The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue
This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.
You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.
A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.
The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.
Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.
Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.
That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.
My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.
“London Mirabilia” Out Soon!
My new book is coming out on October 10th. It’s called London Mirabilia: Journey Through A Rare Enchantment.
Published by Logos Edizioni, and graced once again by Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs, the book is the second entry in the Mirabilia Collection, a series of alternative guides to the most famous tourist destinations, especially designed for the explorers of the unusual.
This time Carlo and I ventured into the very heart of London, in search for the weirdest and most amazing locations to share with our readers.
From the press kit:
We must not be deceived by the cliché of a perpetually gloomy sky, or by the threat of Victorian prudery, nor restrict ourselves to seeing the plain and classical architecture of London as an expression of Anglo-Saxon severity. Much more than other large cities, London is a boundless multitude living on contrasts.
It is only here – maybe as a reaction to the innate, restrained behaviour of Londoners – that the non-conformism of dandies, the incorrectness without taboos of British humour, Blake’s ecstatic explosions and punk nihilism could bloom. It is only here that the most futuristic buildings shamelessly rise up alongside row houses or ancient churches. And it is only here that you can gaze at a sunset over a chaotic railway station, and feel you are “in paradise”, as the Kinks sing in Waterloo Sunset, perhaps the most beautiful song ever dedicated to the city.
LONDON MIRABILIA is an invitation to dive into the unexpected colours, the contradictions and the less known splendours of the city.
17 eccentric and refined locations await the reader who – accompanied by the texts of Ivan Cenzi, the explorer of the bizarre, and the evocative pictures by Carlo Vannini – is given the opportunity to visit the most hidden museums of London, admiring in turn the refinement of ancient historiated fans or the terrible grandeur of the war machines which conquered the sky and the sea.
We will sip the inevitable pint of real ale in a traditional London pub where the macabre remains of an extraordinary story are preserved; we will discover sumptuous houses decorated with arabesques hiding behind ordinary façades, and fluorescent collections of neon signs; we will wander among the gravestones swallowed by greenery through romantic English graveyards; we will walk through the door of fairy-tale interiors and of real modern wunderkammers.
You can pre-order your copy at this link; discounted if purchased in bundle with Paris Mirabilia. Also available in Italian.
While waiting for London Mirabilia to hit the bookstores, I leave you with a little foretaste of what you’ll find inside.
Bizzarro Bazar a Palermo
I am delighted to present you with a project that I hold dear. In fact, when some time ago I was asked to write an essay for Claudio Romo’s Bestiario Mexicano, I immediately accepted: I never made a mystery of my unconditional admiration for the Chilean illustrator, and I talked about him on this blog on several occasions.
There are many excellent artists, who can strike you for their visionary imagination or their poetic touch; but if these elements are backed with a personal research that is not merely aesthetic, their works rise to a different level.
Such authors are rare.
For this reason, as he will be in Bologna from March 25 to 28 (all the details on Logos Edizioni‘s FB page), I strongly advise tou to go an meet Claudio in person if you have the chance.
With him, you will be able to talk history, literature, art; he will infect you with his passion for Borges and Cronenberg, Kircher and Frank Herbert, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Arcimboldo, effortlessly shifting from the philosophy of language to comic books. He will tell you why Chile is such a liquid land, that it somehow instills a fluid vision of reality in the mind of Chilean people; he will get all excited talking about alchemical etchings, or the sacrality of lucha libre. As with all real great artists, he will amaze you with his modesty and his boundless enthusiasm.
For a person who has such a vast and faceted culture, drawing is not a simple means of “expression” for his inner world, but rather resembles a tool to understand reality. It is a tile within a much larger intellectual exploration, an urgent, inevitable need.
Such authors are rare indeed.
This colorful Bestiario Mexicano Romo has been working on for several years, is now finally published in its definitive, expanded version.
The book represents his personal take on five mythological figures of the Maya tradition which are still common today in Yucatán folklore: the Sinsimito, the Aluxes, the Nahual, the Waay Pop and the Waay Chivo.
Claudio presents us with a fantastical and awe-inspiring interpretation of all these creatures, combining Pre-Colombian iconography with a modern and surrealist sensibility.
In the introduction, I addressed the concept of metamorphosis and the nature of the monstruous, trying to show how – despite these monsters’ apparent exotism vis-à-vis our own tradition – there are several interesting similarities between the Mesoamerican culture and European paganism.
Each monster also has its own in-depth information box, which integrates Claudio’s poetic descriptions of these spuernatural figures: besides defining their aspect, specific powers, behavior and regional variants, I have also tried to explain their anthropological value, the symbolic function served by the different creatures.
I think the book is a little gem (I don’t take any credit for that), packed full with wonderful imagery from start to finish, and Claudio really deserves a wider recognition; in my own small way, I hope my contribution helps clarify that his Bestiario, with all its richness, should not be confused with a simple comic book.
Unfortunately for the time being the book is out in Italian language only. If that’s no problem for you, you can still get your copy of Bestiario Mexicano on this page.
Ship of Fools: The Deviant’s Exile and Other Wrecks
In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.
The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.
Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.
Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.
Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).
On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.“
The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:
The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.
(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)
On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.
This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.
A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.
Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.
We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.
The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.
But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.
That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?
There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.
And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.
Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.
What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words – is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.
The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.
The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.
Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.
“Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice
We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.
Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.
Unearthing Gorini, The Petrifier
This post originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death
Many years ago, as I had just begun to explore the history of medicine and anatomical preparations, I became utterly fascinated with the so-called “petrifiers”: 19th and early 20th century anatomists who carried out obscure chemical procedures in order to give their specimens an almost stone-like, everlasting solidity.
Their purpose was to solve two problems at once: the constant shortage of corpses to dissect, and the issue of hygiene problems (yes, back in the time dissection was a messy deal).
Each petrifier perfected his own secret formula to achieve virtually incorruptible anatomical preparations: the art of petrifaction became an exquisitely Italian specialty, a branch of anatomy that flourished due to a series of cultural, scientific and political factors.
When I first encountered the figure of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), I made the mistake of assuming his work was very similar to that of his fellow petrifiers.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside the wonderful Gorini Collection in Lodi, near Milan, I was surprised at how few scientifically-oriented preparations it contained: most specimens were actually whole, undissected human heads, feet, hands, infants, etc. It struck me that these were not meant as medical studies: they were attempts at preserving the body forever. Was Gorini looking for a way to have the deceased transformed into a genuine statue? Why?
I needed to know more.
A biographical research is a mighty strange experience: digging into the past in search of someone’s secret is always an enterprise doomed to failure. No matter how much you read about a person’s life, their deepest desires and dreams remain forever inaccessible.
And yet, the more I examined books, papers, documents about Paolo Gorini, the more I felt I could somehow relate to this man’s quest.
Yes, he was an eccentric genius. Yes, he lived alone in his ghoulish laboratory, surrounded by “the bodies of men and beasts, human limbs and organs, heads with their hair preserved […], items made from animal substances for use as chess or draughts pieces; petrified livers and brain tissue, hardened skin and hides, nerve tissue from oxen, etc.”. And yes, he somehow enjoyed incarnating the mad scientist character, especially among his bohemian friends – writers and intellectuals who venerated him. But there was more.
It was necessary to strip away the legend from the man. So, as one of Gorini’s greatest passions was geology, I approached him as if he was a planet: progressing deeper and deeper, through the different layers of crust that make up his stratified enigma.
The outer layer was the one produced by mythmaking folklore, nourished by whispered tales, by fleeting glimpses of horrific visions and by popular rumors. “The Magician”, they called him. The man who could turn bodies into stone, who could create mountains from molten lava (as he actually did in his “experimental geology” public demonstrations).
The layer immediately beneath that unveiled the image of an “anomalous” scientist who was, however, well rooted in the Zeitgeist of his times, its spirit and its disputes, with all the vices and virtues derived therefrom.
The most intimate layer – the man himself – will perhaps always be a matter of speculation. And yet certain anecdotes are so colorful that they allowed me to get a glimpse of his fears and hopes.
Still, I didn’t know why I felt so strangely close to Gorini.
His preparations sure look grotesque and macabre from our point of view. He had access to unclaimed bodies at the morgue, and could experiment on an inconceivable number of corpses (“For most of my life I have substituted – without much discomfort – the company of the dead for the company of the living…”), and many of the faces that we can see in the Museum are those of peasants and poor people. This is the reason why so many visitors might find the Collection in Lodi quite unsettling, as opposed to a more “classic” anatomical display.
And yet, here is what looks like a macroscopic incongruity: near the end of his life, Gorini patented the first really efficient crematory. His model was so good it was implemented all over the world, from London to India. One could wonder why this man, who had devoted his entire life to making corpses eternal, suddenly sought to destroy them through fire.
Evidently, Gorini wasn’t fighting death; his crusade was against putrefaction.
When Paolo was only 12 years old, he saw his own father die in a horrific carriage accident. He later wrote: “That day was the black point of my life that marked the separation between light and darkness, the end of all joy, the beginning of an unending procession of disasters. From that day onwards I felt myself to be a stranger in this world…”
The thought of his beloved father’s body, rotting inside the grave, probably haunted him ever since. “To realize what happens to the corpse once it has been closed inside its underground prison is a truly horrific thing. If we were somehow able to look down and see inside it, any other way of treating the dead would be judged as less cruel, and the practice of burial would be irreversibly condemned”.
That’s when it hit me.
This was exactly what made his work so relevant: all Gorini was really trying to do was elaborate a new way of dealing with the “scandal” of dead bodies.
He was tirelessly seeking a more suitable relationship with the remains of missing loved ones. For a time, he truly believed petrifaction could be the answer. Who would ever resort to a portrait – he thought – when a loved one could be directly immortalized for all eternity?
Gorini even suggested that his petrified heads be used to adorn the gravestones of Lodi’s cemetery – an unfortunate but candid proposal, made with the most genuine conviction and a personal sense of pietas. (Needless to say this idea was not received with much enthusiasm).
Gorini was surely eccentric and weird but, far from being a madman, he was also cherished by his fellow citizens in Lodi, on the account of his incredible kindness and generosity. He was a well-loved teacher and a passionate patriot, always worried that his inventions might be useful to the community.
Therefore, as soon as he realized that petrifaction might well have its advantages in the scientific field, but it was neither a practical nor a welcome way of dealing with the deceased, he turned to cremation.
Redefining the way we as a society interact with the departed, bringing attention to the way we treat bodies, focusing on new technologies in the death field – all these modern concerns were already at the core of his research.
He was a man of his time, but also far ahead of it. Gorini the scientist and engineer, devoted to the destiny of the dead, would paradoxically encounter more fertile conditions today than in the 20th century. It’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically experimenting with alkaline hydrolysis or other futuristic techniques of treating human remains. And even if some of his solutions, such as his petrifaction procedures, are now inevitably dated and detached from contemporary attitudes, they do seem to have been the beginning of a still pertinent urge and of a research that continues today.
The Petrifier is the fifth volume of the Bizzarro Bazar Collection. Text (both in Italian and English) by Ivan Cenzi, photographs by Carlo Vannini.