REPOST: exquisite corpses

Ickyjenluc [Cocktail Party Physics is on hiatus until October 9 due to a slight case of marriage. In the meantime, we're resurrecting some older posts for those who might have missed them the first time around. Today's rerun is offered in honor of C.S.I. character Sarah Sidle, who survived last season's cliffhanger and was rescued in the nick of time in last night's episode. Like there was ever any doubt.]

There's a classic scene in an episode of C.S.I., in which Sarah Sidle is flirting with a search-and-rescue worker over a body bag containing a liquefied corpse. The forensics team transports the remains back to their Vegas lab, and Sarah gets the mucky job of sorting through the remnants of clothing soaked in foetid bodily fluids. Halfway through this gruesome task, the handsome search-and-rescue guy shows up to ask her to an impromptu dinner — and gradually becomes aware that she is enveloped in the unmistakable stench of a badly decayed corpse. Overcome with nausea, he beats a hasty retreat, and poor Sarah is left standing forlorn in the hallway. The DNA technician, Greg, saunters by, pauses, turns back and observes, "You smell like death." Sarah tightly replies, "Yes. I've heard." Greg shrugs and continues on his way, shooting back, "You know, a real man wouldn't mind."

That sets the masculinity bar pretty high, don't you think? There was a time when all a "real man" had to do was avoid quiche and public discussions of window treatments to assert his manhood, bolstered by the odd bit of beer-guzzling and attendance at rugged sporting events. I can't conceive of a single man (or even a woman) of my acquaintance who wouldn't be prone to retch just a little in the presence of squishy human remains — perhaps because my social and professional circles include no forensic pathologists.

Nor do they include the drug-addicted British rocker Pete Doherty, whose tabloid exploits recently included being arrested for supposedly injecting a young female fan with heroin while she was unconscious in his flat. It turns out the pasty-faced rocker was merely drawing the woman's blood for use in his so-called "blood paintings" (actually crude cartoons scrawled in blood), which have been exhibited in a London gallery and sold for 1000 pounds each. So that's all right. Such a gentleman, that Doherty. By C.S.I. standards, this makes Doherty very manly indeed, but he pretty much tops our list of people we wouldn't want within 10 feet of us with a syringe — and that list includes Hannibal Lecter. (Jen-Luc Piquant opines that it's one thing for the artist to bleed for his art; it's quite another to insist others bleed for it, too, particularly if they happen to be unconscious at the time.)

Doherty's fascination with bloody art isn't all that unique. Artists throughout the ages have exhibited the odd morbid streak, even when it comes to naming their artistic methods. The Surrealists in the 1920s were fond of a collaborative creative technique known as the "exquisite corpse." It was based on an old parlor game called "Consequences," in which players wrote a composition in sequence, with each person only being allowed to see the very end of what the prior player wrote. The name supposedly derives from a phrase penned when Surrealists first played the game: "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau." ("The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.") The technique was initially used to construct poems and short stories, then extended to drawing and collage, even film and music, where each composer is privy to only one measure of music. It's inventive, yes, although there's nothing especially macabre about it, other than its name.

That's not to say corpses can't sometimes double as art, even as they help advance science. Consider the work of German anatomy professor Gunther von Hagens, who made global headlines in 2002 with his traveling exhibition, "Body Works," comprised entirely of 30 skinned and dissected corpses displayed on stands in various poses. The corpses were preserved via "plastination," which involves soaking the corpse in formaldehyde, freezing it, and thawing it — all prior to actual the dissection and skinning. All fat and water are removed and replaced with plastic, so the corpses don't decay, or stink, and are flexible enough to be "posable." Not everyone found the exhibit appalling: several people volunteered to donate their bodies to von Hagens after death — their way of achieving some measure of immortality. (Jen-Luc briefly considered offering her own pixelated self for such preservation, but then realized that she is already "immortal" by virtue of inhabiting the Cybersphere.)

Long before von Hagens conceived of "Body Works," a humble 18th century French anatomist named Honore Fragonard specialized in preparing and preserving skinned cadavers. (Yes, he was related to Jean-Honore Fragonard, painter of far more dainty and bucolic scenes; the two men were cousins.) Most were done for instructional purposes, but Fragonard had a decidedly offbeat sense of humor, and also created elaborately posed skinned bodies for artistic display. In all, he may have created as many as 3000 such "sculptures" (called "ecorches" in French), 18 of which are prominently displayed in the Musee Fragonard in France. The surviving works include Fragonard's take on a famous Durer piece, "The Horseman of the Apocalypse,"  featuring a skinned horse and rider surrounded by tiny human foetuses serving as "foot soldiers." Popular legend had it that the rider was a grocer's daughter whom Fragonard loved, but the rider has the remains of a tied penis, so that rumor is clearly unfounded.

The anatomist dealt with many stillborn children, and used the same technique for those as for his adult subjects. He injected the arteries with red-colored wax (he used blue wax in the veins), or covered them with the wax if the vessels proved to be so small in diameter as to make injection impossible. The skulls were opened to remove the brain — at the time, too difficult to preserve — and the muscles and nerves were separated and later dried, often in postures suggestive of movement. That much was purely in the interests of science, but Fragonard couldn't help arranging three such foetuses in a macabre tableau, dancing a jig. Which might explain why he was eventually fired from his position as director of the world's first veterinary school in Alfort in 1771, on grounds of insanity. He disappeared from view until the French Revolution, when he returned to some semblance of favor until his death in 1799. (With so many aristocrats losing their heads, a few skinned cadavers doubling as art hardly seemed shocking.)

Was Fragonard crazy? If so, he was in very good company. There's a long history of dissecting human cadavers in the interests of advancing the science of anatomy — and that science doesn't preclude a penchant for public display. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians dabbled a bit in human dissection to investigate anatomy, but it was the Roman physician Galen who helped vault the practice into the realm of science around AD 129. He publicly displayed his handiwork, as did the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius during the Renaissance, who was known for dissecting the bodies of criminals in a large lecture theater in Padua before audiences of medical students. It was all highly theatrical — yet also done in the interests of science and education. Further bridging the divide between science and art, Leonardo da Vinci dissected cadavers, sketching his handiwork in exquisite detail. And Vesalius relied on skilled artists for the illustrations in his masterpiece, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body), which included a justly famous frontispiece (below). Vesalius himself is depicted front and center in an anatomical theater performing a dissection before a packed house.001a

I'd consider Vesalius and da Vinci worthy of our new working criteria for "masculinity." After all, their mutilations were artistically (and scientifically) justified. But history also has its Dohertys, most notably in the form of the infamous body snatchers or "resurrectionists" that proliferated in the 19th century. They dug up bodies in graveyards and sold them to local medical schools for dissection or anatomy lectures. (Exhibiting decidedly Doherty-esque behavior, modern-day body snatchers allegedly cut up the bones of the late broadcaster Alistair Cooke prior to his cremation.)

Technically, these resurrectionists were only targeting a specialized niche market, and anyway, the bodies in question were already dead. But it was only a matter of time before someone hit on the brilliant idea of saving themselves the trouble of grave-robbing and manufacturing fresh corpses instead. Most people refer to this as "murder," but why split hairs?

The most famous case involves William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants living in Edinburgh who murdered 16 people (via suffocation to avoid damaging the cadavers) in 1828 and sold the bodies to the physician Robert Knox. They might never have been caught, except they got a wee bit lazy and starting knocking off people the medical students actually knew. Eventually the law caught up to them, they were arrested, Hare turned state's evidence and snitched on his former partner, Burke. Burke was summarily hanged; the practice has been known as "burking" ever since. Hare appears to have escaped scot-free, apart from a brief prison stint as an accessory to murder. Fragonard is starting to look downright cuddly in comparison, isn't he?

Perhaps not surprisingly, given their notoriety, resurrectionists have been featured in several literary works, including a character in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "The Body Snatcher," and of course, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. A more contemporary example is Shelagh Stephenson's new play, An Experiment with an Air Pump, inspired by a famous 1767 painting by the artist Joseph Wright, who often depicted scientific subjects. (I had the privilege of attending a recent performance of said play by a small theater company in Virginia.) At least part of the plot was inspired by Burke and Hare: a young doctor named Armstrong with a single-minded bent towards scientific inquiry first romances, then suffocates the plain-faced, hunch-backed maid so he can more closely examine her hump.

The underlying message of Stephenson's drama is not that scientists are inhumane and therefore evil because they have no respect for life — although Stephenson draws an intriguing modern-day parallel between the need for cadavers by 17th century anatomists and modern-day genetics research, particularly that involving stem cells and cloning. (It doesn't quite work, but it's thought-provoking, nonetheless.) Armstrong is hardly an heroic figure, and there are other scientifically minded sorts in the play who are not so craven in their pursuit of knowledge.

But Stephenson does seek to emphasize that scientific pursuits, while noble and admirable, must be balanced against compassion and basic human decency, and we ignore that aspect at our peril. There is unquestionably an ethical component to science, whether the research involves the anatomy of exquisite corpses, epidemiology, drug development, nuclear weapons, or the potential unknown risks  of nanotechnology. The trick is determining where to draw that ethical line. It's not always as obvious as the case of Burke and Hare.

8 thoughts on “REPOST: exquisite corpses”

  1. Pyracantha from ELECTRON BLUE here:
    This article brings up something which I have wondered about for some time. (It was also brought up many years ago in an episode of STAR TREK: VOYAGER.) What if you were a bio-researcher of some kind and you came across data that was of major significance, but was gotten through unethical means, for instance vivisection of humans or torture or murder. You realize that this data is extremely valuable and could make a breakthrough that would save many lives, but it was gotten through very wrong means. What would you do? I suspect that most scientists would use the data regardless.

  2. Hi there! [Incidentally, I’ve tried to email you a couple of times but it bounced….]
    Yes, I think most scientists would use the ill-gotten data, especially since (a) it could save lives, and (b) they were not, themselves, the ones who did the torturing or murdering.
    Scientific ethics is a dicey balance, though, and it’s not at all black and white in most cases. Even in the cases of the rather gruesome use of science in the service of art described in the above post, it’s easy to have seriously mixed feelings on the subject of, say, whether Fragonard was a brilliant scientist/artist, or a crazy person with an unhealthy interest in corpses. I happen to think the former was the case, and similarly, don’t find von Hagens’ “Body Works” exhibit especially appalling, either. But drawing a young woman’s blood and using to make a crude scrawl and call it a “painting” — that one I have some trouble accepting as “art.”
    But hey… that’s just me. What makes ethical issues such a sticky wicket is that everyone draws the line in a different place….

  3. Thanks for your reply! You can e-mail me at It shouldn’t bounce, which address did you use? By the way I have just bought your BLACK BODIES AND QUANTUM CATS and look forward to reading it.
    A Physicist who had a cat with the “tuxedo” pattern might call the cat “Black Body.”

  4. I can’t help but think about a couple of things here:
    Neal Stephenson’s (related? hmmm.) descriptions of the Royal Society’s (Hooke, Newton, etc.) cadaver dissections and experimentation in the late 17th century in his novel “Quicksilver”.
    And poet Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse web site:
    As corpses (or not), we’re all exquisite.

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