Arts - Spring 2008

Polymer Persons

How can we gaze upon the skinned, displayed bodies of the dead and not be revolted and mesmerized?

By Priscilla Long | March 1, 2008


I come here to gaze upon the dead. I come to gaze upon their naked, dissected bodies. With trepidation, I enter the cavernous exhibition hall in downtown Seattle. This is the large, well-advertised human anatomy exhibition that is currently traveling around the world. The bodies, unnamed, supposedly unclaimed, were preserved in polymer, the spaces in their tissues saturated with plastic. These people, all Chinese, have been skinned, like chickens. They have been boned, but their bones, far from being tossed in a scrapheap, are labeled and displayed in glass cases. Here is a skull—frontal bone, occipital bone, parietal bone, temporal bone. What dreams did it protect? What loves did it sequester—and what fears?

We fear guts. Think of a soldier, shot in the abdomen, hot guts spilling out. Think of your own hot guts spilling out. In the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic king of ancient Babylonia sets out to kill the monster Humbaba, who is terrorizing the land. Humbaba’s face—bearded chin and cheeks, wrinkled brow—is made of twisting guts, wet and intestinal. He wears his insides on the outside. To see our insides is to see ourselves dead or soon dead. To keep the inside hidden, writes James Elkins in his monumental book Pictures of the Body, “is to stave off death.”

John Milton was one dissenter who managed to stave off death, just barely, during and after the English civil wars of the 1600s. I once took a class on Milton, author not only of Paradise Lost but also of Areopagitica—the first document in the history of the West to defend freedom of speech. Our English professor devoted an hour to detailing the risk Milton took in composing and publishing Areopagi­tica. Of the several gruesome punishments of the day, the one reserved for traitors also served as a popular entertainment. Prisoners were hanged, and then, while still alive, drawn and quartered. And what did that entail?

The executioner in Milton’s day was the star performer in a macabre theater, an actor who flourished his bloodied sword before a carnival crowd. His most exacting skill was to disembowel a man (or woman) alive. To present that traitor with the sight of his or her own insides.

On the day of death, the executioner mounted the scaffold above the crowd. It was fitted with a gallows tree, equipped with a scaffold fire. The executioner set a kettle to boil. He prepared a cask of wine. The traitor was carried down London streets, through jeering, jostling crowds. He was noosed and hanged on the gallows tree. Then dropped to the scaffold floor while still alive.

The executioner greets the man. He castrates him. The crowd roars.

The executioner cuts from breastbone to pel­vis. He asks the man in a booming voice how he en­joyed that cut. He draws aside the torso’s skin to expose the pink of guts.

He cuts out the intestines, presents them to their owner, raises them for all to see, drops them into the kettle to boil. He cuts out the liver, the kidneys, the stomach. He presents each organ, first to the man, then to the noisy crowd. Then he drops them one by one into the kettle to boil.

The executioner speaks to this man, to this human being, who was alive, who was conscious, whose kidneys cooked in the kettle. He offers the man a goblet of wine, invites the crowd to toast the man, invites the man to taste the wine.

The body is quartered. The head is parboiled in cumin and other spices and spiked on the gate to London Bridge. For centuries, dozens of heads could be seen at any given time—spiked on the gate to London Bridge.

The body is the house of the soul. The brain is the house of the mind. The brain extrudes the mind, according to many scientists. Whatever the case, the human brain, composed mainly of lipids and water, can read a map, calculate the distance to the sun, envision utopia, build a skyscraper, write a novel, navigate the ocean, weave a tapestry, read a book, remember a face from long ago. The body dreams. It wakes to morning light.

And too, the body is the house of language. The word body comes from the Old English word bodig. The word mouth comes from the Old English muth. The word guts comes from the Old English guttas. The word brain comes from the Old English braegen. The word bone comes from the Old English ban. The word soul comes from the Old English sawol.

“I paint souls,” said the American artist Alice Neel. She painted persons in their times, in their bodies: Rhoda Meyers with Blue Hat with her big-brimmed straw hat and blue necklace, her one big breast and one small breast, her skinny arms and wrinkled belly and inward-looking look; Pregnant Maria curled on a bed, cast in greenish light, her belly so big you can’t see how the baby can possibly get itself born; Andy Warhol with his closed eyes and prim-folded hands, his female-looking breasts, his torso scarred and stitched from its gunshot wound. And just as Alice Neel painted souls in thin paint, Jenny Saville paints bodies in thick paint, thick as flesh and soft to the touch. I think of Jenny Saville’s fat-fleshed nudes, her own big butt painted in impasto pinks on impresario canvases. I think of her brush or gloved finger pressing and stroking that fleshly paint. Thick-painted thighs. And here is a transvestite with a penis and testicles and big silicon breasts: Passage by Jenny Saville.

The body is its own palette: skull bones the color of dried noodles. Liver the color of salmon. Urine the yellow of ocher. Blood and the blue of veins and eyes. Nerves white as fishing line or pale like pink granite.

You wake to the sound of rain. You build a morning fire in the fireplace. You pour black coffee and sip that coffee. You write in your journal. You read “Let Them Call It Jazz.” You walk through the rain to Trader Joe’s to buy a loaf of sourdough rye and a hunk of Emmentaler cheese. You walk home through rainy streets past houses and yards, past the yew tree and the black walnut tree, past crocus and mountain ash and budding daffodil. You sweep the kitchen floor. You wash last night’s dishes. You vacuum the rug. You chop onions, carrots, and potatoes. You make a vegetable stew. You stare into the fire. One Saturday, this is what you do. This is who you are. This is what your body does.

But these polymer persons on exhibit in a Seattle exhibition hall, these nobodies, these no-name somebodies, these “specimens”—who are they? What were their names? Who were their mamas? Their grandpas and papas? What were their “natural causes” of death? What did they think? What did they dream? Did they love to talk? Did they sew? Did they cook or ride a bike or chop wood? As children, were they quiet or were they chatterboxes? As teenagers, were they rebellious or were they serious and studious? Who did they love and who loved them in return? What did they love to do?

“Knowledge is carnal knowledge,” writes Norman O. Brown in Love’s Body. “A subterranean passage between mind and body underlies all analogy; no word is metaphysical without its first being physical; and the body that is the measure of all things is sexual. All metaphors are sexual; a penis in every convex object and a vagina in every concave one.”

So often, dirty words are body words. We have the synecdochal epithets cunt, asshole, and dick—the part standing for the whole. We have shit, from the Old English besciten, covered in excrement. We have the joining of two bodies in a fuck, an obscenity that shocked its hearers from its first appearance in 1500. What is it about our bodies—our body openings especially—that turns us to “vile” language, and “vulgar slang”?

Yet without our orifices, we could not live. A Jewish prayer praises the Lord for the body’s openings:

Blessed are You Lord our God King of the Universe who has formed man in wisdom and created in him orifices (nikavim, nikavim) and vessels (chalulim, chalulim). It is known before Your honored throne that if but one of these be opened or one of these be closed, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You Lord who heals all flesh and works wondrously.
—Translated from the Hebrew
by Rabbi Elana Zaiman

We project our body parts onto our world. We give trees limbs, mountains a foot, rivers a mouth. We speak of the arm of the sea, the eye of the storm, the face of a cliff. We writers are busy creating a body outside our own body—a body of work.

As I am working on this piece on the body, I receive an e-mail from a lexicon-obsessed writer I know, informing me that she has discovered a new word—philtrum. What is a philtrum? It is the groove running down the middle of the upper lip. The Latin version of philtrum means a potion or charm able to excite the passion of love. In the Talmud the following story is told: While we are still in our mother’s womb, the Almighty sends an angel to sit beside us and teach us all the wisdom we’ll ever need to know about living. Then, just before we are born, the angel taps us under the nose—forming the philtrum. . . . And we forget everything the angel taught us.

It is the hot summer of 1960 and I am 17. I am visiting my best friend, Valentine Doyle, at a place called Barn House on Martha’s Vineyard. Some relative of Val’s owns it, perhaps her grandfather. It is a converted barn with outbuildings furnished with bunk beds where people stay—they all seem to be poets or painters or actors. We two teenagers are separate from the rest. I am very shy here. I am in awe of these sophisticated wits, these well-read intellects. I am so backward and so shy that I can barely speak.

Late one hot moonlit night, everyone files out along a sand path down through beach grass to the ocean. We girls lag behind. The ocean sighs and heaves, immense under an immense sky. These hip people strip off their clothes and go skinny-dipping. I remember the loveliness of pale bodies, bodies of men, bodies of women stepping out into slow waves, walking into the night sea.

Young men and young women of a certain age believe that they are free, natural, uninhibited, knowledgeable, sexual, and more advanced in most matters than were their elders. Not uptight. Not repressed by quaint mores. In our 20s my friends and I went whooping down Boston streets. We went out dancing all night. Up in New Hampshire, during freezing winters, we would go to one friend’s log-fired sauna, a wooden structure built out in the snowy woods. We would shed our clothes to take a long, gasping sauna bath, after which we would run naked into snowdrifts, after which we would go indoors and dress and sit by the fire and drink wine and talk late into the night.

We were free in our bodies. Or were we just young, with hormones raging? Was it just vanity? Was it that we—like all young people—had such pretty bodies?

We live as if we were immortal, as if death were not our deadline, as if we had all the time in the world. Yet, a hundred years from now, every one of us will be gone. Our bodies will have become remains.

The Negro spiritual “Dry Bones” repeats the words Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones . . . Don’t you hear the word of the Lord? The old song continues:

Toe bone connected foot bone
Foot bone connected leg bone
Leg bone connected knee bone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?

Leg bone connected knee bone
Knee bone connected thighbone
Thighbone connected hipbone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?

Hipbone connected backbone
Backbone connected shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected neck bone
Don’t you hear the word of the Lord?

The word of the Lord, then, plain as bones. Can you hear it? Plain as bones.

These bones here on display in a Seattle exhibition hall: we wonder—as the joke around town goes—whether they once upheld Chinese dissidents. We wonder how these bones came to be “unclaimed.” We believe—don’t we?—that the dead should be buried. We side with Antigone of the Sophocles play, Antigone who loved her slain brother, Antigone who defied the king’s edict to leave Polynices “unwept,” to leave him out to be “chewed up by birds and dogs and violated,” Antigone who defied the king because the king defied a higher law, a divine law. The king defied the gods.

Whatever our faith, we pay our respects to the dead. We gather to remember, to honor, to celebrate the life. We gather to share our grief and our memories. We do not gather to gawk at our mother’s buttocks, finger pads, or shoulder blades.

I know people who refuse to attend Bodies: The Exhibition. There are many objections, particularly that these polymer persons did not grant permission for their bodies to be displayed after death.

Still, I find the exhibit mesmerizing. The cadavers are presented with respect and with accurate and illuminating labels. I am looking at long threads of nerves, white strings and fettuccini-colored ribbons running from head to fingers, from head to toes. I am invited to hold a man’s brain in the palm of my hand, and I do so. I am looking at a dead man’s penis, at a dead woman’s vulva. I am looking at someone’s skin, spread out upon the table. I am looking at blood and muscle. I am looking at bones. I am looking at myself.

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