Is there another place from which the dickhead’s self can speak?

Marina Warner

  • Bodies of Law by Alan Hyde
    Princeton, 290 pp, £39.50, July 1997, ISBN 0 691 01229 6

Anatomical cabinets, displaying bodies bottled whole or in segments, are gripping artists’ and writers’ imaginations: the Enlightenment’s relish for physical data banks excites awe, fascination and horror in inverse relation to the disembodiment and intangibility of knowledge in the contemporary computerised classroom. A pigmy woman, who died in childbirth in London, where she had been brought to be exhibited, is preserved, in a complete half-section, in the Hunterian Museum. She inspired one of the last, unfinished works of the artist Helen Chadwick, who wanted to restore the unnamed pigmy to history, memory and human status as a person – to personhood, in short. University museums and hospital teaching departments are richly stocked with such specimens: a whole black man in a glass box in Chicago; quintuplet foetuses floating upwards, open-mouthed, like Donatello choristers, on a shelf in the Hunterian. Zarina Bhimji, another artist who, like Chadwick, expresses her challenge to common, unexamined responses through photography, has made a highly enigmatic, disturbing image of a black woman’s breast, disfigured by a hideous slash. This exhibit comes from the forensic archive of a London hospital, where it is used to illustrate the effects of stabbing for the benefit of medical students: but the injury is itself framed by the jagged partition where the breast was severed from the anonymous victim – the scalpel repeating the pincers that appear, for example, in paintings of St Agatha’s martyrdom.

A male cadaver known as ‘Adam’ can be inspected on a website; the images consist of wafer-thin slices (1871 of them) through the frozen body and thus provide a microscopically detailed surgical map of his insides.[*] ‘Adam’ was a convicted murderer – Joseph Paul Jernigan, executed (by barbiturate poisoning) in Texas in 1993 – who donated his body to science. His bizarre, semi-eternal preservation represents the apotheosis of the displayed, reified, specular body of exploratory, scientific epistemology (the website is the pièce de résistance of the ‘Visible Human Project’). But ‘Adam’ differs in two crucially late millennial respects from his antecedents in formaldehyde: first, he is science’s current Everyman (and, until he’s joined by a promised ‘Eve’, this is taken at all-embracing, generic force), whereas the 18th-century cabinets sought to define the norm through aberration, disease, deformity, monsters; secondly, he has been dematerialised and rendered imponderable, spectral, beamed digitally through the air. The diaphanous inventory of the website, or of the CD-Rom, allows global didactic display of what, if it were present for real (actual slices of flesh), would only be permitted to the public gaze under close certification as Art (cf. Damien Hirst).

Visual artists aren’t the only ones to probe these distempered lesions in contemporary approaches to bodies and persons. Gaby Wood’s essay, in these pages, on the ‘Sicilian Fairy’,[†] explored the voyeurism and plottings of freak aficionados and body-snatchers in Victorian London, while Hilary Mantel’s fine, imaginative new novel, The Giant, O’Brien, reviewed in the present issue, dramatises the experiments and predations of the surgeon John Hunter, founder of the Hunterian, as he sniffs out his raw material – including one of the ‘Irish giants’ who showed themselves to the crowd for a fee in 18th-century London.

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[*] National Library of Medicine, Maryland: http://www.nlm.nih.gov

[†] The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness by Gaby Wood is available as not quite the smallest of books (Profile/LRB, 62 pp., £3.99, 9 July, 1 86197 088 9). It was originally published here on 11 December 1997.