A Ship of New Jersey Fools
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
After 500 pages of making fun of other countries and their peoples, and muttering how much better Lake Tahoe is compared to the Sea of Galilee and Lago di Como, Mark Twain wrote that little phrase a year after his trip across the Mediterranean on the Quaker City. That sentence comes after one of my favourite quotes: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Before he gets culture shock, Twain discovers the charm of European life that still resounds with us europhiles today. Here he is in Milan:
Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe—comfort. In America, we hurry—which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in—the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!
I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military bands play—no European city being without its fine military music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep well. They are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful, comfortable, and appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One never sees a drunken man among them. The change that has come over our little party is surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.
Chapter 19: Who Glorifies Poor Mr. Laura?
In Venice, Twain describes the charming gondola parties:
Many and many a party of young ladies and gentlemen had their state gondolas handsomely decorated, and ate supper on board, bringing their swallow-tailed, white-cravatted varlets to wait upon them, and having their tables tricked out as if for a bridal supper. They had brought along the costly globe lamps from their drawing-rooms, and the lace and silken curtains from the same places, I suppose. And they had also brought pianos and guitars, and they played and sang operas, while the plebeian paper-lanterned gondolas from the suburbs and the back alleys crowded around to stare and listen.
Chapter 22: Gondolas are Water-Hearses
Before he even gets to Rome, Twain begins to lose interest in travelling and begins complaining more than enjoying. In Rome, he is utterly full from art overload. Twain explains his bout of museum fatigue:
I suppose the Academy [of Fine Arts in New York] was bacon and beans in the Forty-Mile Desert, and a European gallery is a state dinner of thirteen courses. One leaves no sign after him of the one dish, but the thirteen frighten away his appetite and give him no satisfaction.
Chapter 28: The Good-natured Brother of Skulls
Among the horrors of Twain’s European tour is how many countless dogs died to amuse tourists testing out Vesuvius in the centuries leading up to the (slightly more) progressive modern day:
Everybody has written about the Grotto del Cane and its poisonous vapours, from Pliny down to Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The dog dies in a minute and a half – a chicken instantly…..I longed to see this grotto. I resolved to take a dog and hold him myself; suffocate him a little and time him; suffocate him some more, and then finish him.
Chapter 30: The Rags and Riches of Naples
Luckily Twain’s party forgot to bring a dog and that lucky, unbrought dog lived for one more day.
Then there is this quote on tiresome know-it-alls:
…They are those old connoisseurs from the wilds of New Jersey who labouriously learn the differences between a fresco and a fire-plug, and from that day forward feel privileged to void their critical bathos on painting, sculpture, and architecture forever more.
Chapter 33: Constantinople the Bewildering
Twain gets a few things right. One of those things is that exertion makes relaxation so much better. Here is Twain and his fellow travellers in Damascus:
We lay on those divans a long time, after supper, smoking narghilies and long-stemmed chibouks, and talking about the dreadful ride of the day, and I knew then what I had sometimes known before—that it is worth while to get tired out, because one so enjoys resting afterward.
Chapter 44: I Drink out of Ananias’ Well
Finally, where I do agree with Twain is the humour in the repetitive abundance of saints’ relics in Catholic churches:
We had heard so much of St. Veronica, and seen her picture by so many masters, that it was like meeting an old friend unexpectedly to come upon her ancient home in Jerusalem. The strangest thing about the incident that has made her name so famous is, that when she wiped the perspiration away, the print of the Saviour’s face remained upon the handkerchief, a perfect portrait, and so remains unto this day. We knew this, because we saw this handkerchief in a cathedral in Paris, in another in Spain, and in two others in Italy. In the Milan cathedral it costs five francs to see it, and at St. Peter’s, at Rome, it is almost impossible to see it at any price. No tradition is so amply verified as this of St. Veronica and her handkerchief.
Chapter 54: Jerusalem – We are Surfeited with Sights!
Some good quotes hidden within the morass of culture shock and arrogance.
Perhaps the best part is the list of nineteenth century drinks (chapter 15: Down with the Dastardly Abelard!) that Twain’s group tried to order in a place that advertised “ALL MANNER OF AMERICAN DRINKS ARTISTICALLY PREPARED HERE” (all caps are Twain’s). Sherry cobbler, brandy smash, Santa Cruz Punch (no idea what it is), Eye-Opener, Stone-Fence and Earthquake (probably not this recipe as its purported inventor, Toulouse-Lautrec, could not have whipped up the concoction at three years old).
Frankenstein with a Gift Shop
More on Body Worlds:
Science World devoted some four galleries to the display, along with a Body Worlds gift shop. The full-body displays have no glass covers, allowing for close-up viewing, with a descriptive panel that labelled body parts and perhaps a short blurb on the plastination techniques used. The body parts lay in flat display cases and featured more information about bodily functions than the full-body displays. The much-discussed fetus display came at the end, with an alternate exit for those who can’t handle dead babies.
While the audience was mostly adult, some parents brought their elementary school age, adorable little kids who were not squeamish about what they saw. “Mommy, why does that man have three penises?” asked one little girl, who was answered that the two penis-y things flanking the penis were testicles. Other groups of children sat down in front of the bodies to discuss what they were seeing. Near the end, some kids were begging their parents to hurry to the fetus section: “Let’s go see the babies, daddy!”
As I walked through, I was too caught up in examining the bodies to think much about the museum practices behind the displays.
First of all, I am not entirely convinced of the educational aspects of the show. Then again, I have had friends in medical studies, so I’ve had the benefit of poring through autopsy books and fiddled with bones from UBC’s bone library. The visitors yesterday were a mixture of those pointing out their ailments on the corpses – one middle aged man used his umbrella tip to give his two friends a description of his achilles heel problems; others claiming they will stop or avoid taking up smoking as attested by the guestbook at the very end of the exhibit.
While the display of organs in the flat display cases carried actual information, the full-body displays made much of the fact that they contained a certain amount of artistic flare, with very little biological information aside from the labelling of body parts. The flayed man has a Renaissance pedigree; the kneeling man in prayer harks back to the Medieval era.
Indeed, the exhibit gives prominent place to a copy of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a line that Dr. Tulp alone wears a hat, defying contemporary manners. The Body Worlds website has a photograph of von Hagens himself wearing a hat during a dissection and he devotes a page on his website to that hat, bringing up German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys’ name.
Von Hagens has exhibited many times in art galleries, instead of scientific museums. In the UK, he performed the first public autopsy for a paying audience at a London art gallery. The 72-year-old German alcoholic whose organs were removed is now in the Body Worlds 2 exhibit.
Part of the motivation to display the bodies artistically comes from copyright issues. With at least nine rival shows – some have counted eleven shows – von Hagens has gone to court to stop two of the shows, arguing that his poses have copyright protection as intellectual property (the plastination technique is patented).
In my opinion, with both a background in art history and in museum studies, I question the educational quality of the exhibit, as I see the full-body displays in stark contrast with the more “educational” isolated body parts. The full-body displays serve only a marketing value. Their short names (“The Skateboarder,” “The Archer,” etc.) sometimes carry puzzling names more suitable to super heroes (“The Star Man”), clearly meant to be memorable and generate talk that outlasts the visit for word-of-mouth promotion.
Though he claims to be a scientist and not an entertainer, von Hagens is no stranger to sideshow-era gimmicks: in 1995, his plastinate of a pregnant woman cut up to reveal a fetus travelled around Berlin on a bus to promote the first Body Worlds. Another time, Von Hagens took part in Berlin’s Love Parade dressed as a plastinate. Von Hagens has been called a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein with a gift shop: to exit the gallery, one must walk through a gift shop selling cadaver fridge magnets, keychains, postcards, posters and books.
In addition, some controversy surrounds Body Worlds with regards to the displays of the female donors’ plastinates. Some have said that the female poses are in traditional feminine poses, though my companion and I disagreed on this aspect. While I did find the poses were athletic for the most part, I have to agree that the females did fall into the more feminine camp: a trapeze artist, a gymnast, a dancer, and an archer (remember the Amazons?).
I was also annoyed that the females had nipples intact. None of the male bodies had nipples. My companion argued that female nipples are harder to remove and that their remains did not turn the female bodies into sex objects.
In the case of the gymnast, a full head of blonde hair remained attached to the scalp. Its presence, if from the original body, serves to make the donor’s identity less anonymous, going against the exhibit’s profession that the donors’ identities or personal information be revealed. I found the hair also a sexualizing feature: it “humanized” the corpse, making it resemble a living woman and thus palatable to sexual tastes. Interestingly, in another case, a male body has had the remains of an dark upper lip dyed red; my suspicion is that the donor may have been black, though none of the “white” skinned donors have had the remainders of their light skin dyed.
Von Hagens has issued a questionnaire to current donors to ask if they would object to their bodies being used in sexual poses. Most men were delighted, the women were aghast. Though he has yet to create a tableau of the sexual union, near the end of the Science World exhibit was a pairing of a man and a woman in an embrace. I presumed they were dancers or figure skaters, though from a distance the action is hard to distinguish. This display’s proximity to the reproductive organ display allows the viewer to come to the wrong conclusion.
An interesting observation regarding the female bodies comes from my male companion. After the exhibit, he told me that when he viewed the female reproductive organs, he was the only male at that display case. Later, when he came by the female table again to talk to me, he was again the only male in that area. The table with the male reproductive organs had both female and male audience members surrounding it.
In speculating about the lack of male viewers at the female table, I am guessing that either the men were too embarrassed to look at these body parts, too wary of being deemed lecherous, or simply not interested in female functions. If it is the latter, my question to male readers is why?
Finally, I am unconvinced by the claims within the show that all the bodies come from donors.
Until recently von Hagens used unclaimed bodies from abroad, certainly not the consenting donors purported by the show’s copy. Furthermore two of his plastination factories are in China’s harbour city Dalian and in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where laws concerning the dead are not as stringent or, as in the well-documented case of China, unconsenting prisoners have had their organs removed.
According to former Kyrgyz member of parliament Akbokon Tashtanbekov, von Hagen’s institution “obtained more than 800 dead bodies from prisons, psychiatric wards and hospitals, which hadn’t always notified the families.” Bodies from prisons sold for $13 to $15 each; the youngest body came from a 14-hour-old child.
One of the saddest stories was of Kishinbek Mamakiev, a 71-year-old from Bishkek, who died from a brain hemorrhage in 2000. He went out for a walk, collapsed on the street and was taken to a hospital. The family had no idea what happened, and spent three years looking for the man in hospitals and morgues. They put ads on tv asking for information. Three years ago Tashtanbekov found Mamakiev’s name in the plastination center.
Though in 2001 van Hagens broke off with Valery Gabitov, head of the medical academy’s pathology department and supplier of bodies, he continues to reap Kyrgyz corpses through another body donor program in the country. German prosecutors have found that all the bodies are accounted for, linking death certificates to consent forms. Still, how did Kishinbek Mamakiev’s disappear for three years and why did his name end up in the paper work at von Hagens’ centre?
The danger is, with an uninformed public, is that vast monetary support will go to Body Worlds knock-offs, who might not be as scrupulous as von Hagens or, not as documented.
For example, according to NPR, BODIES… The Exhibition (currently in Seattle), created by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., does not hide the fact that they use unclaimed Chinese bodies. Spokesman Roy Glover says, “We don’t hide from it, we address it right up front.” Created by Dr. Sui Hongjin, a one-time student of von Hagens’, I went to the BODIES… The Exhbition website to see how up front they were about the bodies’ provenence. The faces were instantly recognizable as East Asian. The FAQ, however, did hide the questions about where the bodies came from. FAQ questions 7-10, which answer this very question, are linked to from the bottom of FAQ questions 1-6. The site warns that “It is important to note that the law prohibits he disclosure of any information regarding the specimen’s identity and/or cause of death.”
While some 30 Canadians have signed up to donate their bodies to von Hagens, I suspect the majority of viewers would be loathe to imagine their own dead bodies on a pedestal, twisted and sliced into artistic renderings. That some of the bodies are there without the consent of the donors ring a little too much of Burke and Hare, the nineteenth century murderers who sold 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. That the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to this day still dishonours poor Charles Byrne’s – “The Irish Giant” – explicit deathbed wishes should be warning to those who wish to lay down rules for the fate of their bodies.
The attitude I hope you won’t have is the following, from one of the comments left on the naysayer campaigners’s site:
My friends and I went to the exhibit last week (thinking it was a movie) and I was having a great time at the beginning criticizing all the models until my friend read a sign saying that some of them were real!!!!
Sarah, Denver, CO